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Houthis target tribal elders in bid to extend control

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden

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Yemeni men stand with Kalashnikov assault rifles during a tribal meeting in Sanaa on September 21st, as tribesmen donate rations and funds to fighters loyal to the Houthis along the fronts. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

The Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) have been detaining tribal leaders as part of a campaign to gain control of their resources, Yemeni observers told Al-Mashareq.

The Houthis' so-called Preventive Security Service carried out a large-scale roundup in December and January, detaining dozens of tribal elders in the Sanaa administrative district and in Sanaa and Amran provinces.

Sheikh Atef, a leader of the Bani Sareeh tribe in Amran, was among those who were detained, along with eight leaders of other tribes in the three provinces, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported on January 4th.

The roundup came after the Houthis accused some tribal leaders, even some who had previously supported the militia, of failing to mobilise fighters for their cause or supply their fronts with money and food.

First the Houthis turned on their former political and military ally, former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Abaad Centre for Studies and Research director Abdul Salam Mohammed told Al-Mashareq.

Now they are targeting tribal leaders and elders, he said, even though most tribesmen who were loyal to Saleh and his General People's Congress (GPC) had strongly supported the Houthis.

"It seems that the arrests are the latest mechanism used by the Houthis to subjugate and coerce the tribes, having used other mechanisms previously to tame tribal society," Mohammed said.

The Houthis have marshaled the human and financial resources of the Yemeni tribes to serve Iran's agenda, and have severely depleted them, he said.

As it becomes increasingly clear that the Houthis are serving Iran's agenda and are directed by its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the militia's former political, military and social alliances have begun to melt away, he said.

Houthis working with Iran

The Houthis are working in concert with the IRGC to further the Iranian regime's agenda, undermining the security and stability of Yemen and the region, researcher Nabil al-Bakiri told Al-Mashareq.

"The Houthis' goal is also to tamper with all of Yemen's resources, particularly the human resources, to serve Iran's project and bolster their leaders' control over the entirety of Yemen," al-Bakiri said.

Having gained control over many state institutions and resources, the Houthis are attempting to gain control over the resources of the tribes, he said, noting that the tribes are the militia's main source of fighters.

According to al-Bakiri, internal disputes between the militia's various wings have played a role in the recent targeting of certain tribal leaders.

The aim was to weaken the Houthi leaders who support particular tribal leaders, he said, and thus marginalise the Houthi leaders who hail from provinces other than Saada -- the militia's heartland.

"The usefulness of [the targeted tribal leaders] had ended after the Houthis achieved their goal of seizing control of the state and its revenues," he noted.

Pressure on tribal leaders

The Houthis understand the importance of the tribes and the role their human and financial resources play in supporting the militia on the battlefronts, political analyst Faisal Ahmed told Al-Mashareq.

"From the first day of the coup, the Houthis attacked the tribes' leaders and their sons" to control their tribes, he said, adding that they "succeeded in doing so".

After Saleh was killed, the tribes became more vulnerable, he said.

The Houthis began to put pressure on the tribal leaders, asking them to fight under the Houthis' banner or send their sons to join the militia's ranks.

"Often, the tribal fighters return as dead bodies, which opens the door for tribal leaders affiliated with or loyal to the Houthis to take over the tribes," he added.

In some cases, he said, the Houthis turned on influential tribal leaders, even though they had fully supported the militia's coup, by having them vote and elect a new tribal chief.

This is what happened to the chief of Sinhan tribe, Ali Maqsaa, in early January.

Maqsaa was deposed in a Houthi-led bloodless coup, and was replaced by "a new tribal chief from the same tribe who is loyal to the militia", Ahmed said.

Ahmed said the Houthis have been known to stir up confrontations between their own leaders to get rid of some in favour of others from Saada province.

"This was the case with the killing of the deputy governor of Ibb province Abdul Qader Sufian, whose killers are now going about their business in the leadership posts they occupy" in the militia, he said.

In this way, Ahmed noted, the Houthis have "penetrated the tribes and tightened their control over them", and are using them to serve their own agenda, which in turn serves the agenda of the Iranian regime.

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