The mysterious war in Yemen seems to have more to do with the crumbling authority of the state than with any single cause.

For almost seven weeks, Khasan Muhammad Abdullah and his family cowered in their house in northern Yemen while a war raged outside and their food slowly ran out. He could hear government fighter jets screaming across the sky, and he knew the Houthi rebels by their distinctive logos and headbands. But he could not understand what the two sides were fighting about.

“What do they want, what are they thinking?” Abdullah said wearily, sitting on a friend’s floor in Sana a week after escaping the war zone, along Yemen’s remote northwestern border with Saudi Arabia.

Those questions are being asked across the Arab world and beyond. More than two months of fierce fighting have left thousands dead. Whole villages have been pounded to rubble. The conflict has forced tens of thousands to flee their homes, fuelling a humanitarian crisis and worsening the chaos that has already made Yemen a new haven for the al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

Yet this mysterious war seems to have more to do with the crumbling authority of the Yemeni state than with any single cause. The Houthi rebels, after all, are a small group who have never issued any clear set of demands. They have been fighting the government on and off since 2004, and it is not clear why President Ali Abdullah Saleh decided in August to force an all-out war.

Widening insurgencies

Many in Yemen’s own government say the conflict is less about controlling terrain — always a tenuous prospect in this tribally splintered country — than about President Saleh’s struggle to reassert his military powers, in the face of widening insurgencies and intensifying political rivalry in the capital.

“Saleh started this war mainly because he wants his son to succeed him, and many in the military and government do not accept this,” said one high-ranking Yemeni official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, echoing an analysis that is often heard in the country. “With a war, people rally around him, even the United States, because they fear chaos in Yemen if he falls.”

Yemen’s Foreign Minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, dismissed that view as idle speculation. He said the Houthis had forced the government’s hand by terrorising the population in the north, assassinating local leaders and rearming, in violation of a ceasefire reached last year. He added that the war had a regional and sectarian dimension: The Houthis belong to an offshoot of Shiite Islam known as Zaydism, and he said they received support from Shiites across the region, including in Iran. (The Houthis have denied all this in their official statements.) Yemen is mostly Sunni.

“There were some efforts by the government to mediate, but finally we felt we had to take action,” Mr. al-Qirbi said during an interview in his office. Much about the war remains uncertain, because the Yemeni government has strictly barred journalists and independent observers from entering the Saada Province, the centre of the fighting.

Yet it is clear that the conflict has spread across much of Yemen’s lawless north, swamping the few aid groups operating there. As many as 1,50,000 people are now homeless, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Many more remain trapped in Saada, where aid groups have no access at all, and supplies of food, water and fuel are growing scarcer. The area is also flooded with weapons, which are so uncontrollable that the government used a major arms dealer as an intermediary with the Houthis.

Those who have escaped the war zone say the crisis is worsening.

“If we had not fled our house, we would have been finished,” said Abdullah, a lame and beaten-looking 60-year-old who left his home in late September. “The house was in the middle of the fighting. We came with the clothes on our backs, nothing else.”

On the road south, Abdullah and others said, they were surrounded by other desperate families seeking safety. Some are staying in temporary camps where aid groups are supplying food and water, but even those camps are being rapidly overwhelmed. Many donors have been reluctant to give money, in part because of concerns about poor access and government corruption, according to aid officials in Sana, the capital.

It also seems clear that the Houthis’ influence has steadily grown since the conflict first broke out in 2004, largely because of the government’s mistakes. The Houthis began as a small band of mountain insurgents loyal to Hussein al-Houthi, a former member of the Yemeni parliament. They belong to a quasi-aristocratic subgroup of Zaydis who claim to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and who ruled the country for much of the past thousand years until 1962. The government’s bombing raids, and its use of thuggish tribesman as a proxy force, infuriated the local population in Saada. They began fighting alongside the Houthis after al-Houthi was killed in 2004, and the battlefield extended to neighbouring provinces. Even more civilians have been killed in the latest round of fighting. An airstrike last month left more than 80 people dead in the Harf Sufyan area, most of them reportedly women and children.

Sectarian animosities

The fighting in Saada has also provoked tribal and sectarian animosities that threaten to further destabilise the region. The Houthis formed in part to fight back against the influence of hard-line Sunni Islamists, who received support from neighbouring Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni government has often used the extremists (usually known as Salafists) as proxy warriors against the Houthis.

“The government never respects your human rights unless you are a Salafist,” said Neshwan Yahya Ahmed, another exile from Saada now living in miserable conditions in a crowded house on the edge of Sana. Ahmed, who gave his age as 38 or 39, said he had fought in a government-organised “popular army” against the Houthis, who had arrested and released him four times. Although he seemed hostile to the Houthis, he also deeply resented the government’s policy of using sectarian and tribal animosities to further its goals.

Several Saada residents, and aid workers who have spent time there, said the Houthis had extended their influence over the past year in part because they had worked hard to resolve local tribal conflicts. This effort, they say, stands in stark contrast with the government’s policies, which have long involved setting tribal and political groups against one another.

In addition to its scorched-earth campaign against the Houthis, Yemen’s government is facing other serious challenges. A southern secessionist movement that has been brewing for years flared up into open violence earlier this year and gained the support of one of Saleh’s important allies. The al-Qaeda has regrouped in Yemen and is using the country as a base for attacks throughout the region. — © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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