Saturday, June 11, 2011

The war behind the war in Yemen


From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Jun. 11, 2011

Depending on your point of view, the war in Yemen can be explained in two ways. It’s a war in which a government that favours the largely Sunni citizens of the former “communist” state of southern Yemen is violently opposed by tribally based Shiites in what was once the independent state of northern Yemen. Or it’s a war about national elites battling it out for access to scarce resources in the midst of a population explosion. Regardless of which is true (evidence suggests the latter), there’s a war behind the war in Yemen that goes largely unreported.

Yemen has one of the highest birth rates in the world, and remains one of the poorest countries in the Arab world. In 1953, it had a population of 4.3 million people. Today, that number is more than 24 million, with half under the age of 15. Demographers suggest Yemen’s population will reach 60 million within the next 40 years.

Yemen has no major industries. It’s largely agricultural, with some pastoralism in the eastern desert. Three-quarters of its national revenue comes from oil exports. Yet, experts predict these will be exhausted by 2017, leaving the government nearly broke and unable to invest in rural development.

About 70 per cent of the people live in rural areas. About half of the population is functionally illiterate. Most Yemenis live their lives as members of tribes that follow a customary tribal law system based on mediation and material reparations (livestock and money) that has regional variations. (Yemenis call this blood revenge system tha’r.)

Growing populations and rural conflict over land and water are aggravated by the fact that, although alcohol and drugs are forbidden by the state, Yemenis are addicted to chewing a narcotic leaf called khat, whose production takes up more and more cultivated land in a country dependent on rain-fed agriculture and a medieval form of channel irrigation.

Do-it-yourself tube wells have allowed farmers to tamper with the groundwater, and this is aggravated by the fact that traditional upstream communities have always had the upper hand in water conflicts when it comes to interference with the flow. Add to this the fact that customary tribal law and the national (sharia-based) inheritance laws create conflict over land and water, as one favours the sons of the man while the other favours the wife’s family. This is just one more variable that contributes to widespread rural violence.

It should come as no surprise that there’s disparity over how many Yemenis are killed each year. The ministry of justice says the national murder rate is about 1,000 a year. Non-Yemeni water and land experts say more than 4,000 Yemeni men die annually during murderous land and water conflicts; there are, after all, anywhere between 10 million and 15 million guns freely available to male adults. This toll is far greater than that experienced during the current political upheaval. Yemen is running out of water, and water tables are plummeting – experts suggest Sanaa, the capital, may have no water within 10 years.

A typical conflict occurred in 2007, when members of a tribe kidnapped an 11-year-old boy over a plot of land. He resisted and was killed. His tribe refused mediation. Warfare erupted, until the government sent in tanks. Similar events happen regularly all across the countryside, but they’re rarely reported on. With rising numbers of murderous conflicts over land and water, tribal mediation takes up more and more time and energy and is often subverted by powerful elites who are either in the national government or have close ties with it.

Yemen is one of the few countries in the world where citizens are reorganizing or revitalizing their tribal structures. Their motto is, “Yemen for the tribes and the tribes for Yemen.” But this is really a battle cry for escalating tribal warfare over two rapidly diminishing resources: land and water. As the Yemenis say, “Al-ard ‘ard.” Land is honour, and they’re fighting for it every day.

At Yemen's request, FBI arrives to investigate attack on president

FBI to investigate attack on presidential compound, underscoring close ties between two countries.

Jeb BooneJune 11, 2011

SANAA, Yemen — The United States has sent an FBI forensics team to Yemen to investigate the attack on the compound of President Ali Abdullah Saleh that seriously injured the president, forcing him to leave the country last week.

“The FBI is aiding Yemeni law enforcement in their investigation in the attack on the presidential compound. The FBI team arrived in Sanaa last Wednesday,” said a senior Yemeni government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

The arrival of the FBI team, which came at the request of the Yemeni government, underscores the close relationship the United States and the Saleh administration continue to maintain, despite a months long uprising and subsequent violent crackdown by government security forces that have killed hundreds of peaceful protesters.

Yemen, the home of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an Al Qaeda offshoot that is responsible for a number of attempted attacks against the United States, has for years been an important ally of the United States in the fight against religious extremism.

Although it was originally assumed that the attack on Saleh’s compound was carried out by a rival tribe that had been fighting government forces for several weeks, the Yemeni official said the FBI has determined a number of other possible suspects, including Al Qaeda and members of Saleh’s inner circle.

“They are concerned about how the attack was carried out. Everyone is a suspect,” the Yemeni official said, adding that the FBI team is expected to complete their investigation by the end of next week.

Wounded in the rocket attack, which took place in the afternoon of June 3, Saleh fled to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. Although rumors of his return persist, many analysts believe that the president is gone for good.

The ensuing chaos has provided an opening for both tribal fighters and Al Qaeda to assert themselves in some parts of the country.

The FBI’s arrival in the Yemeni capital comes as the United States steps up its covert military campaign against Al Qaeda cells in the southern Yemeni governorate of Abyan. The United States has been using airstrikes and unmanned drone attacks in its attempt to kill the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and other top Al Qaeda members based in Yemen.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is now engaged in a guerrilla war against the Yemeni government in the southern province of Abyan. Militants have begun flocking to Abyan in support of Al Qaeda, which last week captured Zinjubar, the provincial capital, and announced the establishment of an “Islamic Emirate.”

The official denied that the Yemeni government believed Al Qaeda had infiltrated the Yemeni government or security apparatus, emphasizing that the government simply wanted the aid of the FBI’s expertise and resources in the investigation.

But according to some analysts, the U.S. interest in the attack implies that there is some possibility that Al Qaeda was behind it.

“The Americans will come to the aid of Yemen if they are asked. However, it is important to note that if there was even the slightest possibility that Al Qaeda was involved in the attack, the U.S. would take an extreme interest and, if they could, become involved in the investigation,” said Abdul Ghani Al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst.

“They Yemeni government has said that it believes Al Qaeda was behind the attack,” he added. “And it is quite possible.”

Fighting with Islamic militants in Yemen kills 30

By AHMED AL-HAJ, Associated Press

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Officials say as many as 30 Islamic militants and soldiers have been killed in fighting for control of southern areas in Yemen.

In a twist, local officials say the army commander trying to rout militants from the Zinjibar and Jaar areas has joined a protest movement seeking to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Gen. Faisal Ragab, commander of Battalion 119, defected in March.

The Defense Ministry says 21 al-Qaida militants were killed Saturday. Abyan provincial officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized to release the information, say nine soldiers also were killed.

Saleh is in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment but refuses to step down. The U.S. is worried that al-Qaida's branch in Yemen will take advantage of the instability.