- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007


When the Yemeni Akhbar al-Yaum (Daily News) reported on its front page the March 28 downing of an Iranian drone by Yemen’s armed forces in remote southeast Yemen, it shed rare light on one of the murkier battlefields of the “cold war” between Sunni Muslims and Shi’ites.

The newspaper, known for its close government contacts, said: “The drone that was brought down in Hadramawt belongs to the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Soon after the newspaper report, the Middle East Newsline agency quoted Yemeni sources who accused Iranian forces of conducting reconnaissance missions on military and strategic targets in Yemen.

The next day, Yemen’s Arabic-language al-Ayyam newspaper reported that the downed drone was American. Quoting a high-level government official, it said a group of hunters had stumbled upon the wingless drone and notified the nearest military base. Yemen’s Defense Ministry refused to comment as rumors flew in that country. ‘

The claim by al-Ayyam (the Days) that the downed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was U.S.-made was confirmed to The Washington Times by a Yemeni source close to Sheik al-Ahmar, an influential tribal leader.

“The Iranian UAVs are little more than model aircraft with extremely short range,” said James Spencer, a Middle East analyst specializing in defense and security issues.

U.S.-made UAVs have operated over Yemen since at least 2002, when al Qaeda member Sinan al-Harithi, mastermind of the USS Cole bombing on Oct. 12, 2001, was assassinated by a U.S.-launched Predator missile.

The al-Ayyam article also speculated that the drone might have been French, because of the French naval presence in waters south of Aden, a port in Yemen.

Iranians, whom San’a accuses of supporting the Fiver Shia al-Houthis, who operate in the mountainous north of Sa’ada, fly a UAV over the Shafi’i (one of the four legal schools of Sunni Islam) Sunni Hadramawt?” asked Mr. Spencer.

Sunni Muslims make up most of Yemen’s 19 million population, with Shi’ites accounting for about 15 percent. Yemen has been a staunch U.S. ally since September 11, and has made several anti-Iranian accusations in an effort to link its internal problems to regional issues in the hope of securing financial aid.

Muslims have traditionally been closer to Sunni Islam than to Twelver Shi’ism, which is the religion practiced in Iran.

The range of the Mohajer or Ababil UAVs that Iran constructs is so limited they would have had to be launched from inside Yemen if the downed aircraft was indeed Iranian. While Iran has supplied Lebanese Hezbollah with UAVs and could have offered them to the anti-government al-Houthi group currently engaged in guerrilla warfare in northern Yemen, the drone was recovered in southeast Yemen, at least 500 miles from the focus of the revolt.

San’a accuses Iran of funding an anti-government insurgency by a local Shi’ite group that has plagued the country since early this year and led to the deaths of at least 150 government and rebel combatants. Tribal leaders say that at least 30,000 civilians have fled their homes in what is the fourth violent outburst since 2004.

The latest fighting began in January after the decision by a group of 50 Yemeni Jews in the country’s north to seek refuge from purported persecution by al-Houthis. The government said the al-Houthis were harassing the Jews, something the former do not deny, claiming that the Jews were selling wine to Muslims.

Al-Houthi resentment has grown since 2004, when hard-line Shi’ite cleric Hussein al-Houthi was killed by government troops. Yemen accuses the rebels of wanting to install Shi’ite religious rule, receiving aid from Iran and preaching violence against the United States.

“These are baseless allegations used repeatedly since the [1979] Islamic Revolution in Iran,” leader Yahya al-Houthi told the Al Arabiya television news.

Despite this, a spokesman for Yemen’s ruling General People’s Congress party quoted Iranian security officials as saying that some Iranian religious institutions support the rebels, but without official backing from Tehran.

Iranian officials would not comment on their country’s involvement in Yemen.

Amid rising tensions between San’a and Tehran, the Iranian Embassy in Yemen’s capital has been put under surveillance. Many visitors to the embassy have been interrogated by Yemeni intelligence, especially visitors to the cultural attache, who is suspected of being an undercover Iranian intelligence officer.

Tensions peaked after Iran’s ambassador to San’a, Hossein Kamalian, was summoned by Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qurbi on March 20 for a meeting after a fruitless visit to Tehran by Mr. al-Qurbi.

In April, a security agreement was signed between the two countries, described as aiming to further “regional cooperation and coordination in order to maintain stability and security in the region.”

“The rebellion will expand [while] Iran is refusing to call it a rebellion,” wrote Hafez al-Sheikh Saleh, a columnist for the newspaper Akhbar al-Khaleej (Gulf News) in Bahrain. “As for the Iranians, it is their nature to say something and not do it or do the opposite of what they say. The way they deal with the Arabs is on the basis that they are a nation of idiots who are easily fooled.”

Emotive rhetoric has increasingly coursed through the normally staid state-controlled Arab press as the regional confrontation between the conservative Sunni states and Shi’ite Iran mounts.

Pro-Saudi press such as the Elaph news site consistently run stories intended to paint Tehran in a negative light. On Feb. 19, it quoted Syrian researcher Muhammad Said Shalah as saying that pro-Iranian “businessmen are using Iranian money and transferring funds to finance many Shia leaders throughout the Islamic world.”

“The support given to al-Houthi is only a drop in the ocean of the Iranian infiltration of the Arab region from the Gulf to the ocean,” the Elaph news site asserted.

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