Rebels capture Yemen’s palace, drive key U.S. ally to brink of collapse
Shiite terrorists stormed Yemen’s presidential palace and attacked the leader’s residence Tuesday in a show of force that threatened to topple a government that has been a key American ally in the fight against al-Qaida.
The assault by the Houthi rebel faction — believed to be backed by Iran — was a setback for President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. He apparently survived the attack and was nominally in charge, but the rebel leader warned that the offensive “has no ceiling” if the president does not implement plans that include granting more power to the terrorists.
A government collapse could send the country into full-scale civil war, threatening a Syria-like disintegration that many fear could be exploited by radical groups such as al-Qaida. Yemen is home to the terror group’s most powerful branch, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
Hadi’s weakened position will likely spell trouble for Washington, which has relied heavily on the 69-year-old former general for cooperation in carrying out drone strikes that have targeted the al-Qaida group. The Houthis have been vocal critics of the White House, but it was not clear whether they would force Hadi to suspend the strikes, as the Houthis consider al-Qaida an enemy.
In September, the war on terror in Yemen was being touted as a “success” in speeches by President Obama. In explaining why he was ruling out sending American troops to fight Islamic State, Obama said he was modeling his strategy on what he said were successful efforts in Yemen and Somalia to partner with governments to stop terrorists.
The Houthis, followers of the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, are based in the northern Saada province but swept into the capital in September. They met little resistance from Yemen’s military, which has had a strained relationship with Hadi.
The assault Tuesday drove Hadi’s government to the brink of collapse.
Yemen’s information minister, Nadia Sakkaf, tweeted that the “Yemeni president is being attacked by armed militias that want to overthrow” the government. She wrote from Sanaa that the presidential palace had been under siege since 3 p.m., “even though political talks are still ongoing.”
A government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of concern for his safety, said Hadi was pinned down by an assault on his residence, about three miles from the palace.
In recent days, the Houthis have taken control of state-run media outlets and government buildings, including offices of the Yemeni intelligence service.
The rebel chief, Abdulmalik Houthi, delivered a long televised statement that stopped short of declaring a change of leadership. He severely criticized Hadi for alleged corruption and failing to unite a country beset by years of unrest and a growing water shortage.
He demanded talks that could put Hadi in charge — if barely.
“All options are open,” the rebel leader said. He called on the president to implement power-sharing agreements that were signed by the president and the Houthis in September.
The Houthis have mounted intermittent rebellions against the government since 2004 over because of what they say is discrimination. Zaydis make up nearly a third of Yemen’s population of 24 million, which is majority Sunni Muslim.
Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, warned that the consequences of the crisis could be severe.
“The world is very much occupied with what’s going on with Iraq and Syria, but we could find ourselves facing another civil war situation in Yemen, but one where there is a power vacuum for extremists,” he said.
The Houthis are opposed by the Sunni tribes, some of whom sympathize with AQAP.