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Yemen Appears To Be On The Brink Of Sectarian War


When President Obama laid out his strategy last week on how to take on ISIS he used Somalia and Yemen as examples of places where U.S. counterterrorism efforts have been successful. But now Yemen may be on the brink of an all-out sectarian war involving the government, al-Qaida militants and a regional rebel group that has just swept into the capital, Sana'a. While a peace deal has been signed, there are few signs that it's being honored. Iona Craig is a freelance journalist with the Times of London. She's one of the few Western journalists reporting from Yemen and she's on the line now. Iona Craig, welcome to the program.

IONA CRAIG: Hi there.

CORNISH: So these rebels swept through the capital; a peace deal is signed. But I take it that that hasn't exactly settled things?

CRAIG: Not really, no. And I think it's almost wrong to call it a peace deal in many ways. They signed an agreement which involves the government being dissolved and a new prime minister, but there is an annex to that deal that's as far as the international community is concerned has been signed by the Houthis because it was past the deal. But as they see it, they didn't sign it - and that is about the cease-fire, about their militias withdrawing from the surrounding provinces around Sana'a, which they have been fighting for and can now control. So we have a "peace deal," quote, unquote, because really this at the moment in Sana'a things are calm - after five days of fighting - but they have also been going almost house to house in many respects or hunting down anyway their adversaries in the last 24 hours.

CORNISH: And you talk about this rebel group, the Houthis, give us more background. Who are they?

CRAIG: They're traditionally a Zaydi-Shia movement from northern Yemen. They were formed in 2004. They have fought the government six times up until 2010 when the last peace deal was signed. But in the last year there has been many conflict matters - been mainly the Houthis fighting SABA (ph), the tribesmen and militias loyal to Islah, Yemen's equivalent to the Muslim brotherhood.

CORNISH: Iona Craig, Yemen is of course home to a powerful branch of al-Qaida as well. What effect could this have on the U.S. drone or intelligence operations against AQAP, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula?

CRAIG: Well, actually the Houthis haven't stormed the National Security Bureau, which is the intelligence agency that is most relied upon by America for those kind of counterterrorism operations. But actually I think the bigger concern is a backlash from al-Qaida, because this is a Shia group and they are great rivals of al-Qaida. They have been threatened and attacked by al-Qaida increasingly over the last six months, and this is really worrying. This is a kind of trend that could really continue here in Yemen is when you get this backlash from al-Qaida and you have these two sides fighting a sectarian conflict.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, with this being a Shia rebel group what's been the reaction in the region?

CRAIG: The Houthis, you know, obviously had planned all of this well in advance. So within moments of literally taking hold of the capital they then were in the Presidential Palace signing this deal. And the international community has backed that deal. It was brokered by the United Nations Special Envoy here, and even Saudi Arabia has said they support this deal. But really people don't have much more alternative other than to try and support this deal, even if it may not be worth the paper it's written on. Because the Houthis are the most powerful fighting group in Yemen, and there aren't too many people that can stand up against them right now. So yeah the international community and even the region are just hoping that this deal is going to work and be implemented.

CORNISH: Iona Craig reporting for the Times of London from Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

CRAIG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.