When Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak arrived at the White House on Tuesday, August 18, he told President Barack Obama that Yemen is on the verge of a Somalia-like collapse.
A similar cocktail of foes is at work in both countries.
In Mogadishu, radical Muslim groups are fighting the Somali government alongside al Qaeda elements, supported among others by Iranian agents, whereas in Yemen, government forces are battling pro-al Qaeda groups in the center of the country and Huthi rebels armed and financed by Tehran in the northern region of Saada on the Saudi border.
President Obama did not need Mubarak's reminder concerning Yemen. He had in hand a US intelligence report telling him that Yemen is in the grip of the biggest armed conflict to beset the Arabian peninsula in 18 years, ever since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991.
This report reached him when the news headlines were focused on the US-led NATO war on Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, followed Wednesday, Aug. 19, by the carnage in Baghdad – six huge truck bomb and suicide attacks combined with mortar shelling left almost 100 dead and 600 injured. Al Qaeda had returned to the Iraqi capital with a vengeance with terror attacks whose intensity recalled its 2004 and 2005 offensives.
The Yemenite Hothis' violent challenge to central government in Sanaa has been going on for years.
The fanatical Huthi Zaydis, claiming they are the only genuine Shiites, take their name from Hussein Badreddin al-Huthi, their former commander whom the Yemeni armed forces killed in September 2004.
Their stamping grounds are the northwestern Yemen province of Saada and across the short border they share, among the Zaydis of the Saudi province of Asir.
Hothi rebels gain on Yemeni army with Iran's help
In the last two weeks, DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources report, the Hothis made substantial gains against the Yemenite military, using their topographical advantage in Saada's mountains, particularly in Dhahian city, as well as in Magz, Sahar, Saqeen, Haydan, Kittaf, Baqem and Al-Safra districts, where they reach elevations of 6,000-9,000 feet and are impenetrable to tanks and other armored vehicles.
They were able to destroy Yemen's 82nd armored division, killing hundreds of troops and wounded many more with the help of masses of Iranian-made anti-tank rockets funneled to them by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Al Qods Brigades.
The Yemeni military tried to retaliate with a blanket of artillery fire and MRLS rocket launchers on the mountainsides where the Huthis were dug in. This did not work because the rebels had scattered through the mountains in small groups of 3-5 men and were constantly on the move.
In desperation, the Yemeni president, Abdullah Salah, this week tossed into the fray all the elite units of the 66,000-strong Yemeni army, its first mechanized infantry division, and six commando and paratroop divisions – altogether some 20,000 of his best troops.
US intelligence estimates they outnumbered the Huthi force of a little over 15,000 fighters under the command of Abd al-Malik al-Huthi – except that the rebels are familiar with every inch of the mountain area and trained to fight in this terrain by Iranian military instructors.
Saudi Arabia sends bombers, Egypt ammo, US pays
Then, on Sunday, Aug. 16, DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence and Gulf sources reported that the Saudi king Abdullah and Yemeni president spoke on the phone about the situation on the war front. The result was the Saudi ruler's order to his air force to start bombing Hothi strongholds and village-bases in Saada province. The Saudi warplanes, including F-15 fighter-bombers and Tornado bombers, flew in from Khalid Air Base located in the northwest of Asir near the Yemeni border.
At the time of writing this, the Saudi bombings continue.
The Saudi Air Force is also helping the Yemeni army with helicopters for dropping supplies and evacuating injured personnel from the mountain war zones to hospital.
King Abdullah had meanwhile got in touch with President Mubarak, who was on his way to Washington, and asked him to open his munitions depots and release to the Yemeni army badly needed arms and ordnance.
The Yemeni army still fights with outdated Soviet weapons from the 1970s and 1980s. The Egyptian army is the only Middle East military which still has old ammunition suitable for those weapons.
Before his plane landed in Washington, our military resources report that Mubarak had ordered his generals to organize an airlift and naval convoy to ferry all the weapons and ammunition the Yemen army needed.
The first Egyptian aerial transports and ships reached the Yemeni Red Sea port of Hudayda Tuesday, August 18 as Mubarak entered the White House in Washington.
Later that day, President Obama promised his Egyptian guest that Washington would foot the bill for Saudi and Egyptian participation in the Yemen War. They agreed that the Yemen arena had occasioned the first direct battle between Cairo and Riyadh, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other.
Rebels switch fronts, prove staying power
The Saada warfront is still teetering back and forth between the combatants.
The Yemeni army is advancing very slowly along three rugged mountain routes, razing every Hothi village-stronghold en route and carrying out mass executions. According to our intelligence sources, the two sides count a total of 2,000 dead.
As they fall back from the advancing troops, the Hothis have opened a new front: Their raiding squads attack the army's transportation routes (narrow paths with only one semi-paved road in each region), rear bases and military installations.
Tuesday, Aug. 18, they mounted one such attack on the presidential palace compound in the town of Saada, Yemen's third largest town after the capital, Sanaa, and Taiz. Once in control of the buildings, they burned them down.
Yemen's chiefs of staff declared a state of emergency in the capital after concluding that the Hothis who mingled in with the river of refugees, estimated at more than 150,000, fleeing the combat zones could not be prevented from reaching Sanaa.
On Wednesday, Aug. 19, DEBKA-Net-Weekly military and intelligence sources report the Yemeni chief of military intelligence Gen. Ali Sayani arrived in Jeddah for an urgent consultation with the Saudi deputy minister of the interior, Prince Muhammad (son of Minister of the Interior, Prince Nayef), the strong man of Saudi Arabia's security services.
Gen. Sayani appealed for expanded military involvement in the war and more aid before it spreads to Shiite population centers in the kingdom.
He warned there was no chance of the conflict ending any time soon and advised preparing for a long haul.
On this point at least, the government in Sanaa and the rebel command are of one mind.
The rebel chief informed his officers this week that he was not troubled by Yemeni and Saudi attacks on his forces. Washington, Riyadh and Cairo would soon come to realize, he said, that the Hothis had more than enough staying power to last the course until they reached their goals.