- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2004

SAN’A, Yemen — Followers of a radical anti-American cleric have held out for more than six weeks in the face of concerted government attacks on their mountain stronghold, raising fears that their defiance will encourage other extremist groups.

While Sheik Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houti and his followers have no known ties to al Qaeda, an affiliate of Osama bin Laden’s terror network expressed the hope last month that the struggle would “drag the United States into a third quagmire” after Iraq and Afghanistan.

The government claimed it was close to defeating the group after a major offensive last week that left more than 50 soldiers and insurgents dead, many of them on the government side. The fighting has taken more than 500 lives since it began in late June.

Military sources said that soldiers backed by aircraft, helicopter gunships, tanks and artillery captured several key locations in the Jabal Maraan mountains of Saada province, including most of the rebels’ hide-outs.

But as long as Sheik al-Houti remains at large, analysts fear that other militant groups will be encouraged to rise up.

“If the government forces don’t win decisively, it will show that they are weak and will encourage more groups to pop up,” said Khaled Al-Akwaa, professor of public policy at San’a University.

“The government must carry out its campaign to defeat the group or make al-Houti face justice. It’s important at this time for the government to establish law and order across the country.”

During last week’s intense fighting, a little known Islamic group, Tawhid Wa Al-Hijra (Monotheism and Immigration), posted its support for Sheik al-Houti on its Web site and charged that the government had “opened the country of Muslims to the crusader forces.”

Early in July, Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade, an al Qaeda affiliate, issued a statement saying it aimed to “drag the United States into a third quagmire, that is after Iraq and Afghanistan, and let it be Yemen, God willing.”

The group has claimed responsibility for attacks in Iraq, Turkey and the March 11 railway bombings in Madrid.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh is said to have once supported Sheik al-Houti as a political and religious balance to the country’s powerful Sunni movement. Sheik al-Houti is a Zaidi Shi’ite, a minority sect that represents about 30 percent of Yemen’s population.

Predominantly Sunni religious groups teamed up with Mr. Saleh’s forces to defeat the socialists in the south during Yemen’s 1994 civil war. But the Sunni movement, which runs numerous religious schools, now is linked to the Islah (Reform) Party, the strongest opposition to Mr. Saleh’s ruling party.

“Al-Houti is a homemade extremist,” said Abdullah Al-Faqih, professor of political science at San’a University. “The government supported him to balance a social conflict.”

Mr. Al-Faqih said that Sheik al-Houti, a member of parliament from 1993 to 1997, eventually “turned on President Saleh, like what happened to the United States after it supported the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the ‘80s who later turned on their previous supporter.”

Sheik al-Houti, blamed for violent anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli protests, established a group called “Believing Youth” and is thought to have secretly formed a militia at his stronghold in the north. When authorities tried to arrest him on June 18, they were driven back by fierce resistance.

The government has since offered a $55,000 reward for the capture of Sheik al-Houti, accusing him of sedition, attacking government buildings and security forces, forming an illegal armed group and inciting people not to pay taxes.

“I am working for the propagation of the Koran and the fight against the United States and Israel,” Sheik al-Houti told Agence France-Presse late last month. He described the president as “a tyrant who does not have any legitimacy … and who wants to please America and Israel by sacrificing the blood of his own people.”

Yemen, bin Laden’s birthplace but a U.S. ally in the war on terror, has rounded up hundreds of suspects, including key al Qaeda members. It is currently trying six suspects accused in the bombing of the USS Cole at the port of Aden in 2000 and 15 others believed to have taken part in the attack on the French tanker Limburg in 2002.

Public sentiment, however, is running strongly against the United States and Israel because of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Much of the country is outside the control of the central government, which relies on loose alliances with tribal leaders who rule vast rural areas.

Weapons are easily available. Authorities say there are an estimated three weapons for each of the country’s 20 million people.

One of the biggest arms markets is Souk Al-Talh near the city of Sa’dah, close to Sheik al-Houti’s mountain stronghold. Pistols, automatic weapons, hand grenades and rocket-propelled grenade launchers are for sale at the market, and according to one salesman, anti-aircraft missiles can be bought at the right price.

“Al-Houti could have easily armed himself by shopping at weapons markets anywhere in the country,” said a Yemeni analyst.

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