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Explainer: Who are Yemen’s Houthis and why are they under attack?

Courtesy: Dawn News/Reuters

Houthi attacks on Israel have increased the risks of conflict for Saudi Arabia.

The United States and Britain launched strikes from the air and sea against Houthi military targets in Yemen in response to the movement’s attacks on ships in the Red Sea, a dramatic regional widening of the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

As witnesses in Yemen confirmed explosions throughout the country to Reuters, President Joe Biden cautioned in a statement late on Thursday he would not hesitate to take further action if needed.

Here are some details about the Iran-aligned group.

History

In the late 1990s, the Houthi family in far north Yemen set up a religious revival movement for the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, which had once ruled Yemen but whose northern heartland had become impoverished and marginalised.

As friction with the government grew, they fought a series of guerrilla wars with the national army and a brief border conflict with Saudi Arabia.

War in Yemen

The war began in late 2014 when Sanaa was seized by the Houthis. Worried by the growing influence of Iran along its border, Saudi Arabia intervened at the head of a Western-backed coalition in March 2015 in support of the Saudi-backed government.

The Houthis established control over much of the north and other big population centres, while the internationally recognised government based itself in Aden.

Yemen has enjoyed more than a year of relative calm amid a UN-led peace push. Saudi Arabia has been holding talks with the Houthis in a bid to exit the war.

But the Houthi attacks on Israel have increased the risks of conflict for Saudi Arabia.

Houthi attacks on Israel

The Houthis say their attacks on shipping routes in the Red Sea are a show of support for the Palestinians and Hamas in its fighting with Israel.

The Houthi attacks have disrupted international commerce, forcing international shipping to take the long route around South Africa to avoid being struck. The increase in delivery costs is stoking fears it could trigger a fresh bout of global inflation.

The US said Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands supported the operation against the Houthis and sought to present the air strikes as part of an international effort to restore the free flow of trade in a key route between Europe and Asia that accounts for about 15 per cent of the world’s shipping traffic.

What is the aim of the Houthi attacks?

The Houthis are one part of what has been called the “Axis of Resistance” — an anti-Israel and anti-Western alliance of regional groups (Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthis) backed by Iran.

The Houthis’ slogan is “Death to America, Death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory to Islam”.

Links with Iran

The Houthis have built ties with Iran, but it is not clear how deep that relationship goes. The Saudi-led coalition accuses Iran of arming and training the Houthis, a charge both deny. The coalition also says Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah is helping the Houthis, an accusation it rejects.

While Iran champions the Houthis as part of its regional “axis of resistance”, Yemen experts say they are motivated primarily by a domestic agenda though they share a political affinity for Iran and Hezbollah. The Houthis deny being puppets of Iran and say they are fighting a corrupt system.


1- Header image: Yemeni men brandish their weapons and hold up portraits of Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi during a protest in solidarity with the Palestinian people in the Houthi-controlled Yemeni capital Sanaa on January 5. — AFP

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