Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Yemen’s Houthi Militants Extend Push Southward
Prospect of military intervention by Saudi Arabia has become increasingly likely

By HAKIM ALMASMARI in San’a, Yemen, And ASA FITCH in Dubai
March 24, 2015 1:46 p.m. ET

Houthi forces battled their way southward toward the strategic city of Aden on Tuesday, heightening the prospect of outside military intervention by Saudi Arabia to protect the country’s embattled president.

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is holed up in Aden, where he has been attempting to rally domestic and foreign support for his efforts to retake control of the capital San’a from the Houthis. He has urged Saudi Arabia, the regional powerhouse, to come to his aid against the Iranian-backed Houthis, Saudi media reported Monday.

Houthi fighters pushed into the southern provinces of al-Dali and Lahij on Tuesday after entering Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, two days earlier. Military officials said the Houthis have received the support of local forces loyal to Mr. Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who led Yemen for more than two decades until he was forced to leave office in 2012.

United Nations officials and Yemeni politicians say the Houthi military offensive is helping push the country toward civil war, pitting the Arabian Peninsula country’s patchwork of political factions and jihadist groups—including San’a Province, a self-described affiliate of Islamic State—against each other.

The Houthis, who hail from northern Yemen and are part of the Zaidi offshoot of Shiite Islam, overran San’a in September and took over the central government last month after power-sharing talks collapsed. After being held under house arrest, Mr. Hadi escaped and fled to Aden.

Since then the Houthis have been trying to consolidate control over Yemen’s central and southern provinces, triggering conflict with local communities and escalating already frayed sectarian tensions.

Fresh clashes and anti-Houthi demonstrations broke out on Tuesday in Taiz, 100 miles north of Aden. Clashes between Houthi security forces and demonstrators left eight people dead and 45 injured, protest organizers said. The casualty toll couldn’t be independently verified.

While the Houthis are Shiite Muslims, many southern and central provinces are predominantly Sunni.

“We are a Sunni province and refuse to allow Houthis to enter our province,” said Nasser Al Areeqi, one of the protest organizers. “This will launch sectarian violence in the province for years to come.”

In response to Mr. Hadi’s reported invitation for outside military intervention, Prince Saudi Al Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, said that if Yemen’s political and security crisis didn’t end quickly, “we will take the necessary measures for this crisis to protect the region.”

In his comments to Saudi media, the foreign minister didn’t spell out what those measures would be.

Ali Al Shami, a senior Houthi military commander, said if Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in Yemen, his forces “wouldn’t stop our expansion at Mecca but rather Riyadh.”

“We fought Saudi in 2009, and within hours we entered 50 kilometers [30 miles] into their lands with less than 100 fighters,” he said. “We are more capable today to defeat Saudi if they insist on hurting Yemen.”

Safwan Sultan, an aide to Mr. Hadi, said Saudi help was needed urgently to prevent Yemen from falling into the hands of Iran.

“Saudi must intervene militarily in Yemen before its too late,” Mr. Sultan said. “The fall of Yemen into the hands of Iran will soon result into the fall of Saudi.”

Amid the deteriorating security situation, the U.S. withdrew all of its special operations forces helping battle al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The U.S. and about a dozen other countries have also closed their Yemeni embassies, citing the security situation.

Adding to the security turmoil, there have been clashes recently along the border between Yemen’s Al Baitha and Mareb provinces, according to two provincial security officials. More than 20 people have died and dozens more injured in the past two days as Houthi forces tried to expand their control, the officials said.

Jamal Benomar, the U.N. envoy to Yemen, said on Monday the country risked sliding into violence along the lines of the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al Houthi said in a televised address Sunday that the move into Taiz aimed to root out al Qaeda elements there, not to seize territory. But he also acknowledged that Yemen was growing increasingly unstable.

“What is happening in Iraq and Syria should be examples for Yemen. And sadly, we are starting to face what those countries faced,” he said.

Write to Asa Fitch at asa.fitch@wsj.com

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