STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We will report, next, on a country that could be concerning much of the world in the future - Yemen. Its an ancient land tucked into the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula.
Yemens government is battling rebels in the north. The fighting has brought the military of Saudi Arabia across the border in a rare use of its armed forces. NPRs Peter Kenyon reports from Yemens capital, Sana.
PETER KENYON: Reporters are barred from the conflict zone in the northern Saada governorate, but residents of the capital are used to the sounds of fighter jets heading north to the battle.
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KENYON: The often-contradictory claims of success by the Yemeni government and the rebels have been impossible to verify. The rebels, known as al-Houthis, after their leader, say they have shot down three Yemeni fighter jets since October. Yemeni authorities say the planes suffered technical malfunctions and crashed. Yemeni officials have claimed the battle was nearly won, only to be followed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh saying that the war has just begun.
One thing is clear, the conflict has left tens of thousands newly homeless, on top of the estimated 150,000 displaced by the fighting since 2004.
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KENYON: In the overcrowded Mazrak camp in northwest Yemen, displaced farmers and shepherds swap stories of the fighting that mix straightforward observation with superstition and Houthi mythology.
Abu Tareq, who fled his home near the Saudi border, says even the Saudi army, fighting to reclaim territory seized by the rebels on Mount Dokhan this month, was surprised by the Houthis' firepower.
Mr. ABU TAREQ: (Through translator) The Houthis were there at Mount Dokhan and then they had confrontations with the Saudis. They have secret power, some kind of magic. I mean, those guys are very strong. God knows what they have. They scared even the Saudi soldiers.
KENYON: The Saudis soon regrouped and say they are now clearing a six-mile buffer zone inside Yemen an unusual overt military operation by a foreign power that so far has aroused no official complaint from San'a.
Ahmed al-Kibsi, a political scientist at San'a University and a member of Yemen's ruling party, says the rebels are mainly a criminal gang, although some of them members of the Zaydi sect, an offshoot of Shiism want to bring back the Zaydi Islamic government that ruled northern Yemen for nearly a millennium until it was overthrown in 1962.
He says whats most troubling are suggestions that Shiite-led Iran is supporting the rebellion. He believes theres only one reason Tehran would do that
Professor AHMED AL-KIBSI (Political Science, Sana University): Saudi Arabia, they'd like to upset Saudi Arabia. It is a Saudi-Iranian conflict in Yemen.
KENYON: The theme of a proxy war has been taken up by international analysts and officials. In his column at ForeignPolicy.com, analyst Robert Haddick wrote that Saudi leaders, quote, "might fear the creation of a pro-Iranian Shiite enclave adjacent to the Red Sea shipping lane, similar to what Iran has achieved with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon."
Other commentators warn that Yemen has been so weakened by its various crises that its becoming a safe haven for al-Qaida terrorists.
Ahmed Saif, director of the Sheba Center for Strategic Studies in San'a, says periodic alarms about Iranian weapons reaching the rebels have so far not been backed up by evidence. He does believe financial aid, either from Iran or sympathetic Shiite groups, is getting through.
But to answer the question of where the Houthis getting their arms, Saif says you need look no further than the divided and dispirited Yemeni army.
Mr. AHMED SAIF (Director, Sheba Center for Strategic Studies): They are buying the arms from the Yemeni army, from the local market. Because the catastrophic situation of the traditional army here, and the lack of loyalty to the state, they don't have the momentum to fight. So, they simply just sell the ammunition and the arms.
KENYON: The Yemeni official confirmed this account, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals against his family or career.
Echoing the U.S. State Department and others, analyst Ahmed Saif says there is no military solution to Yemen's northern conflict, but he adds that it will likely take Saudi pressure to bring the two sides back to the table.
Mr. SAIF: Actually, the one who has the final say is Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen. The war is not the answer. The war has further weakened the regime, has further disintegrated the state and made it optimal situation for al-Qaida.
KENYON: And to this crisis, a struggle against separatists in the south, a potentially crippling water shortage, and a rising tide of refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia, and its easy to see why Yemenis say they need help, not fear and condemnation, from the international community.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Sana.
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INSKEEP: Its NPR News.
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