For the fourth week now, US special forces and Yemeni army contingents are locked in a mighty battle with Iranian-backed al Qaeda tribes for control of the Arabian Peninsula.
This battle had its beginning at the June 11 G-8 Summit on Sea Island, Georgia. President George W. Bush made a big fuss of introducing the new Iraqi president Ghazi al-Yawar to the heads of the industrial nations he was hosting. Another Middle East guest, Yemeni president Abdullah Salah, attracted less attention. He was not there to show support for the US president’s Great Middle East Initiative but for an urgent US-Yemen war conference on saving the southern Arabian Peninsula from falling into the clutches of Iran and al Qaeda. The conference went on behind the scenes of the three-day summit and continued for another three days in Washington, where the Yemeni president saw Bush again as well as the US foreign and defense secretaries, national security adviser, intelligence heads, chief of staff and various senior officers.
Salah was shown updated American intelligence information from Yemen on a movement called The Believing Youth founded and headed by 45-year old Sheikh Hussein Badr Eddine al-Hothy, who has been inciting Yemenis to rise up against the American forces accused of preparing to conquer their country.
US special forces are indeed present in Yemen. Before the G-8 summit, they were deployed in the northwestern region of Sa’ada alongside a 15,000-strong Yemeni army, to prepare for the largest battle ever waged against al Qaeda in Arabia.
The Yemeni president did not need the Americans to tell him about al-Hothy and The Believing Youth, although he may not have appreciated how close they have come to unseating him. In 1993, the sheikh was a member of parliament for a monarchist party. His late father was one of the most esteemed Zaidi Muslim religious scholars in Yemen and leader of the local Justice party.
The Zaidis are a branch of the Shiite sect who did not recognize Ali’s son Muhammed al Bakr as the Fifth Imam, but another son Zaid, who was killed in fighting for his rightful position in the year 740. Doctrinally they are closer to the Sunnis than they are to the Shiites. Since 901, Zaidis have ruled Yemen, including the current president. Their epicenter is Sa’adah. But since the 1962 revolution, they have had no Imam.
In 1997, al-Hothi returned home from three years spent in Tehran with a pocketful of cash which he proceeded to spend on the establishment of The Believing Youth and dozens of Shiite mosques and centers of learning which drew tens of thousands of Yemenis.
Seven years later, US intelligence has filled a dossier with the following discoveries:
In Iran, al-Hothi was recruited by Revolutionary Guards intelligence for the purpose of creating a pro-Iranian state in Yemen, which is situated strategically in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula opposite the Horn of Africa and astride the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea.
In 2000, Tehran expanded his mission by ordering him to join forces with al Qaeda cells in Arabia and the Horn of Africa. According to the dossier presented to Salah, al-Hothi and his followers took an active part in the plot to blow up the USS Cole on October 2000, killing 19 American seamen and injuring more than 500.
His followers also took part in the October 6, 2002 bomb attack on the French tanker Limburg at anchor in the Gulf of Aden. Speedboats packed with explosives and run by suicides were used to hole both vessels.
Since the US invasion of Iraq, al-Hothy has made the Sa’adah and Hadhramauth regions of Yemen available to al Qaeda as key logistical bases for their operations in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Of late, US intelligence has discovered, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terror sources, that Yemen has joined Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia as sources of fighters, bomb cars, arms, explosives and money flowing to al Qaeda operations officers including Musab Zarqawi conducting the Iraqi guerrilla war.
Believing Youth members have forged logistic relations with al Qaeda cells and training facilities in Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya.
The US dossier stresses that all of al-Hothy’s activities in conjunction with al Qaeda are synchronized with and approved from Tehran and authorized in advance by his Revolutionary Guards controllers.
The Yemeni president returned to Sanaa after he and President Bush agreed to mount a large-scale US-Yemeni military operation to destroy the shared bases and weapons dumps set up by the Believing Youth and al Qaeda, and also capture or kill al-Hothy and the al Qaeda men with him.
Five days later, on June 26, the offensive began. It is judged by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources as being the largest battle Americans have waged against al Qaeda since the November-December 2001 Tora Bora engagement against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Taking part in the combat, raging on the two mountain chains of Haidan and Muran, the fastnesses of the Believing Youth near the Saudi frontier, are substantial US special forces with tanks, supported by fighter-bomber jets, helicopters and drones. The Yemeni army is fielding commando units, tanks and heavy artillery.
US naval units have blockaded Yemen’s Red Sea coast to prevent al Hothy’s men escaping to East Africa or bringing in reinforcements. Riyadh has responded to a joint Washington-Sanaa request, by sending heavy Saudi army units to try and seal its border with Yemen. The Saudis agreed to render this assistance after the President Salah was finally prevailed upon by the Americans to implement his commitment under the 2000 Yemen-Saudi Jeddah Accord to hand over to the Saudis 35,000 square kilometers of land in Hadhramauth, including the Rida airfield.
The transfer took place Monday, July 12.
The huge military effort has thus far produced disappointing results, not much better than the outcome of the Tora Bora engagement. The battle that was timed to end last Tuesday, July 6, is still dragging on without a decision one way or the other, in rugged, arid mountainous country where peaks rising to 7,000-8,000 feet are separated by deep, narrow chasms. Al-Hothy’s forces have the advantage of familiarity with every nook and cranny of the terrain. Commanders are reporting that the American and Yemeni troops, caught up in a battle without end, are losing heart.
By Tuesday, July 13, an estimated 200 men had fallen in battle on both sides, a large number of Yemeni government troops, some Americans, and an unknown number of rebels.
Tuesday and Wednesday, July 13 and 14, another 300 dead were reported in extremely heavy fighting. The high number of casualties is accounted for, according to our sources, by Yemeni government troops becoming fed up enough to shoot at anything that moves, most probably hitting local tribesmen as well as the enemy.