WHO ARE THE HOUTHIS, PART ONE: WHAT ARE THEY FIGHTING FOR?

id: 238847
date: 12/9/2009 13:16
refid: 09SANAA2185
origin: Embassy Sanaa
classification: SECRET//NOFORN
destination: 09SANAA1939|09SANAA2117
header:
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RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHYN #2185/01 3431316
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
R 091316Z DEC 09
FM AMEMBASSY SANAA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 3352
INFO RUEHLB/AMEMBASSY BEIRUT 0188
RUEHRL/AMEMBASSY BERLIN 0119
RUEHRH/AMEMBASSY RIYADH 1715
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RUEKDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC

----------------- header ends ----------------

S E C R E T SANAA 002185

NOFORN
SIPDIS

FOR NEA/ARP AMACDONALD AND INR JYAPHE

E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/09/2019
TAGS: PGOV, PTER, PREL, SA, YM
SUBJECT: WHO ARE THE HOUTHIS, PART ONE: WHAT ARE THEY
FIGHTING FOR?

REF: A. SANAA 2117
B. SANAA 1939

Classified By: Ambassador Stephen Seche for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (S/NF) SUMMARY. Given the Houthis' opacity and the
government's exaggerated claims about their goals, it is
difficult to know what exactly they are fighting for. The
ROYG accuses the Houthis of wanting to restore clerical rule
in Yemen, which they deny, insisting instead that they want
basic citizenship rights and religious freedoms. Although
some Yemeni analysts believe the Houthis' goals may be
broader, possibly including political control of Sa'ada
governorate, most informed observers do not believe that the
Houthis desire to re-establish the imamate or expand their
control beyond Sa'ada. In November 2009, the Houthis
presented President Saleh with a list of conditions for
guaranteeing a final resolution to the conflict. These
include reconstruction and compensation for war-time damage
and looting, genuine economic development and delivery of
basic services, and an end to cultural and political
discrimination against Zaydis, who form the majority of
Sa'ada governorate's population. The Houthis, feeling that
Zaydi Shi'ism is under threat from the growing influence of
Sunni Salafism, also reportedly seek to establish their own
madrasas (religious schools) and a university for Zaydi
jurisprudence in order to preserve their unique identity,
religious beliefs, and practices. Understanding the Houthis'
objectives can help shape a political solution to this
complex conflict, though additional factors, such as tribal
vendettas, will also need to be taken into account in order
to bring the fighting to an end. END SUMMARY.

2. (SBU) The information in this cable is compiled from
PolOff interviews with sources who have first-hand contact
with the Houthis, including journalists, relief workers, ROYG
officials, and Houthi mediator and Haq party chief Hassan
Zaid. (Note: It is Post's policy not to communicate directly
with the Houthis due to ROYG sensitivity. End Note.)

WHAT DO THEY WANT?
------------------

3. (S/NF) Given the opacity of the Houthi rebels in the
northern governorate of Sa'ada, as well as the government's
misleading claims about the group's goals, it is difficult to
answer the question, "What are the Houthis fighting for?"
They are rhetorically anti-American, painting the slogan
"Death to America" on buildings and boulders throughout
Sa'ada governorate, but they have not targeted U.S. citizens
or interests. The Houthis are also anti-Israeli and
anti-Semitic, and their threats against the Jewish community
in Sa'ada (one of only two remaining Jewish communities in
Yemen) caused the Jews to relocate to Sana'a in 2007.

EVOLVING OBJECTIVES
-------------------

4. (SBU) The Houthis' objectives have evolved since the
first Sa'ada war began in June 2004, when the Houthis were a
small group of fighters defending a member of their family,
MP Hussein al-Houthi, from arrest. (Note: Hussein al-Houthi
was reportedly one of 21 brothers, including current leaders
Abdul-Malik and Yahya. End Note.) For almost three months
Houthi and his supporters, who at that time claimed
allegiance to the state, fought off government troops from
his stronghold in the Marran Mountains, until he was killed
on September 10, 2004. In the years since, as the Houthis
have gained supporters and territories, the group's
objectives have expanded while becoming even murkier.
According to the International Crisis Group, there is no
evidence of a coherent ideology or political program: "Some
groups fighting the government, though referred to as
Houthis, appear motivated by multiple, mostly non-ideological
factors having little in common with the leadership's
proclaimed grievances." These factors include
disenfranchisement with the ROYG and the need to avenge the
killings of family members or tribesmen unless blood money is
paid.

ROYG ACCUSATIONS ABOUT HOUTHI GOALS
-----------------------------------

5. (S/NF) The ROYG accuses the Houthis of wanting to restore
the clerical rule of the imamate overthrown in 1962 and

impose draconian religious beliefs and practices on
communities where they are in power. Foreign Minister
Abu-Bakr al-Qirbi said in an interview published in
London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat on September 12 that the
Houthis "consider the current presidential system illegal and
not in accordance with their creed." Colonel Akram al-Qassmi
of the National Security Bureau (NSB) told PolOffs on
November 18 that re-establishing the imamate is not the
Houthis' main priority now, but it is part of their ideology.
Instead, they are currently focusing on "standing up and
strengthening" a Shi'a-dominated region along the
Saudi-Yemeni border. "With this deck of cards, the Houthis
can abuse the Saudi and Yemeni governments," he said, much
like Hizballah in Lebanon. The ROYG )- along with many Arab
governments in the region )- seeks to portray the Houthis as
part of a regional, Iran-led Shi'ite conspiracy to expand
influence and power at the expense of Sunni populations.

6. (S/NF) The Houthis deny such goals, however, and as a
result, many of the Houthis' pronouncements are more about
what they do not stand for than what they do. The Houthis
proclaimed on their website, "The authority's accusations
about the imamate are just a media war... We are not asking
for positions, we are asking for rights and justice. The
essence of the crisis is political." In a letter delivered
to President Saleh on November 22, Houthi spokesman Mohammed
Abdulsalam attempted to correct the record, saying, "We hope
that you do not (believe) the propaganda presented to you
that we want to restore the imamate or that we have anything
against the republican system." He goes on to explain, "We
do not want from you more than the right of equal
citizenship." In the letter, Abdulsalam attributed the
misunderstanding and marginalization of the Houthis to "the
persistence of the official media to deal with us as if we
are from another planet."

BASIC CITIZENSHIP RIGHTS OR BROADER AMBITIONS?
--------------------------------------------- -

7. (S/NF) Houthi mediator Hassan Zaid, a Zaydi Hashemite
from a prominent Sana'a family and chair of the Haqq party,
the legitimate political arm of the Zaydi movement, told
PolOff on November 21 that the Houthis are fighting in
self-defense and will stop as soon as the ROYG ceases to
attack them. He explained that the Houthis' political goal
is to "benefit from the protection of the Constitution and
the laws," including equal citizenship and freedom of
expression and religion. Mohammed al-Qadhi, correspondent
for Dubai-based The National, however, told PolOff that the
Houthis' goals may be broader than securing certain religious
and political freedoms. The Houthis' fight is "no longer
about self-defense," he said. "They may have their own
political ambitions now." He believes that their fight is
partially motivated by outrage at the open secret that
President Saleh is grooming his son Ahmed Ali for the
presidency. According to Qadhi, Saleh "keeps singing a song
that offends them," referring to how the ROYG prides itself
on having "toppled the hereditary rule of the imamate" but is
"doing the same thing (hereditary rule) under the umbrella of
the republic."

8. (C) Nabil al-Soufi of NewsYemen, who twice traveled
secretly to Sa'ada governorate, told PolOff on November 18,
"The Houthis have a political agenda, but the war they are
waging lacks clear objectives." He explained that the
Houthis were dragged into the sixth war and have to keep
fighting to defend themselves. He believes their objective
is to control Sa'ada governorate, not to spread Zaydi
religious beliefs or to re-establish the imamate, although
they use religious rhetoric to advance their political
objectives. U.S. academic Greg Johnsen, who has studied
Yemeni politics for many years, has written, "Despite the
religious rhetoric on all sides, the Houthis are primarily a
group driven by the local politics of Sa'ada." Chief among
their complaints is the ROYG's "deliberate neglect" of the
governorate and the traditional political elite's place
within it. The conflict also is believed to have originated
as an inter-Zaydi battle of the social classes, as the
Hashemite elite within the Zaydi sect felt excluded from
their rightful place in government by Zaydis from lower
social classes, such as Saleh.

HOUTHIS' SPECIFIC DEMANDS
-------------------------

9. (S/NF) The Houthis have presented President Saleh with a
list of their conditions for "guaranteeing a final
resolution" to the conflict (ref a). In addition to
releasing prisoners (including 18 members of the Houthi
family who are in prison in Sana'a, according to Zaid),
compensating civilians for looted property, and
reconstructing war-damaged infrastructure, the Houthis demand
the "normalization" and "demilitarization" of life in
Sa,ada" through the following steps: 1) the army's
withdrawal from villages and farms in order to demilitarize
public and private properties in Sa,ada; 2) genuine economic
development and delivery of basic services; 3) end cultural
and political discrimination against the Zaydi population;
and 4) allow civil servants to return to their jobs and give
them back-pay for the time they were separated from their
posts. According to NDI Deputy Director Murad Zafir, the
Houthis are also seeking to establish a university for Zaydi
jurisprudence, as various universities for Sunni
jurisprudence already exist in Yemen.

WAR WITH RELIGIOUS ROOTS OR RELIGIOUS WAR?
------------------------------------------

10. (SBU) One of the deepest root causes of the conflict in
Sa'ada is religious. Over the past 20 years, Zaydis -) who
have historically made up the majority of the governorate's
population )- have felt increasingly threatened by the
radical Sunni Salafism exported from Saudi Arabia (ref b).
"Sa'ada is so Shi'a that even the stone is Shi'a," Abdulkader
al-Hillal, former head of the Sa'ada Mediation Committee,
told the Ambassador, quoting a Yemeni poet. However,
Sa'ada's unique Zaydi identity has been challenged by the
establishment of Salafi schools and mosques in the
governorate, and local residents founded a Zaydi revivalist
group called the Believing Youth to teach young people about
their Zaydi religion and history. A branch of the Believing
Youth later produced the more extreme Houthi ideology and
organization. NDI's Zafir told PolOff on November 21 that
the Houthis are fighting to preserve their unique identity,
religious beliefs and practices by seeking to establish their
own schools and university.

COMMENT
-------

11. (C) Contrary to the ROYG's claims, the Houthis do not
appear to be fighting to restore clerical rule. It is more
likely that they are, as they claim, seeking greater local
autonomy and respect for their religious beliefs and
practices. Understanding the Houthis' objectives can help
shape a political solution to this complex conflict. Yet
even if such a settlement takes the Houthi leadership's
grievances into account, the fighting will not end unless
steps are taken to address the additional factors )- such as
tribal vendettas -- that have motivated other individuals and
tribes to join the Houthis' struggle despite not sharing
their ideology. END COMMENT.
SECHE

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