Ayatollah Sistani and the War in Yemen
Now that Iraqi Shiites and Kurds are in power after decades of repression, perhaps some other regional governments will embrace the concepts of pluralism and equal rights. Recently the Shiite religious establishment in Najaf, Iraq, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said the Yemeni government is waging “a kind of war” against Yemeni Zaidis.
Zaidis, one of three main Shia branches, are found almost exclusively within Yemen. They practice a moderate form of Islam and enjoy good relations with their Sunni co-patriots. So why would the highly respected Ayatollah Sistani tell the world that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is waging a war on the Zaidis?
Perhaps the Iraqis are referring to a civil jihad that uses the powers of government against the Zaidis. President Saleh recently began closing 4000 “underground” Zaidi schools serving 330,000 children. Yemeni public schools propagate Sunni doctrine. Officials of Saleh’s Sunni government have characterized Zaidi teachings as “blasphemous,” “backwards” and “deviant.” The curriculum of some hard core Wahhabi schools, the greater threat according to analysts, was not addressed in their statements.
Perhaps Ayatollah Sistani is drawing the world’s eye to President Saleh’s current military attack on Saada Province, a Zaidi region. Chasing a small band of Zaidi “rebels” through Saada, the Yemeni military has left behind a wide path of death and destruction. Residents claim that 65,000 people have had their homes destroyed.
In a replica of last year’s bloody siege, which culminated in the death of rebel cleric Hussein al-Houthi, journalists are prohibited from Saada, supplies are withheld, houses destroyed, and numerous civilians injured and killed. In a propaganda ploy similar to the Sudan’s, Saleh says he is fighting a rebellion as his warplanes bomb civilians.
Amnesty International noted that many innocent Yemenis were reportedly killed by heavy artillery fire and missile attacks. It cited reports by witnesses that a helicopter gunship attacked civilian targets and a number of people were killed. The region is under strict lock down, with parts closed off for months and international organizations excluded.
A recent pamphlet from Saada residents describes an ugly scene: “The military [is] … using the different heavy and middle weapons like the air and ground missiles, military tanks, planes, and surface-to-surface missiles. They are besieging those areas from all directions; houses inhabited by elderly people, children and women were demolished and whoever could leave them is now homeless with those injured people without medicine.”
When some opposition parties said, “This bloodshed, destruction of homes and assaults on people are truly regrettable and a cause for sorrow,” Saleh threatened to take them to court.
Transparency International, an anticorruption watchdog in Berlin that publishes an annual corruption perceptions index, notes Yemen as one of the world’s most corrupt states, where President Saleh is also the head of Yemen’s judiciary. Perhaps Iraq’s religious leaders are pointing to Saleh’s use of the law as another weapon against the Zaidi people, who make up nearly 40 percent of Yemen’s population.
Thousands are in prison without charges after mass arrests in Saada, and more are taken daily. A Zaidi judge, Mohammed Luqman, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after ruling against one of Saleh’s political cronies. A Zaidi editor, Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani, was jailed after a series of articles on governmental corruption. Both men were convicted of sedition for speaking against the bloodshed in Saada.
A deft master of propaganda, Saleh knows all the buzzwords to feed the West. He called the 4000 Zaidi schools “extremist” and said their closure was educational reform. He announced that imprisoning the respected judge was an anti-corruption campaign. He said the outspoken editor was flaming sectarianism by denouncing the violence.
As he attacked Saada, Saleh implied that the few hundred rebels were allied with Iran. (Actually, first he said they were supported by Jews, but he retracted that. Next it was Bahrainis, and then Kuwaitis that were financing them. Then the rebels were monarchists. Now it’s Hezbollah.) The Jamestown Foundation, an organization in Washington that monitors Eurasia, calls the likelihood of Iranian influence “questionable.”
Saleh says the attack on Saada is over as it continues. And life goes on in Yemen with Zaidi civic leaders targeted and libraries closed, Internet cafes monitored by undercover security thugs, and Zaidi religious celebrations prohibited by military force. With presidential elections scheduled for next year, one can reasonably predict that Saleh will be the big winner. After all, he won 96 percent of the vote in 1999.
The Jamestown Organization forecasts a bleak future for Yemenis: “While Saleh grooms his son as his successor, Yemen threatens to become a replica of the hereditary Baathist presidencies of Iraq and Syria.”
Who better than Iraqis to recognize another Saddam? President Saleh has stolen the liberty of an entire country including the Sunni majority, but his jihad against the Zaidis includes artillery, mass arrests, and forcing children out of school. This is the jihad in Yemen that Iraq’s religious leaders mean to show the world.