SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen’s Shi‘ite Houthi fighters tightened their grip on the capital Sanaa on Monday after seizing much of the city in a lightning advance and signing an overnight deal to win a share of power, capping a decade-long guerrilla uprising.
The Zaydi Shi‘ites, who make up 30 percent of Yemen’s population of 25 million and ruled a kingdom there for 1,000 years, have complained of being marginalized since their last king in Sanaa was overthrown in a 1962 revolution.
Houthi followers gathered in the streets, some chanting “Death to America! Death to the Jews! Victory to Islam”, while armed supporters in civilian clothes deployed alongside government soldiers across Sanaa.
The Houthis, named for the tribe of their founder, had fought for more rights for Shi‘ites in Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries, where the United States is waging a separate drone air war against al Qaeda.
The Houthis are seen as allied to Iran, the main Shi‘ite power in the region and mortal foe of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni monarchies of the Gulf. Their Zaydi Shi‘ite sect is related to but separate from the sect practiced in Iran.
A Houthi delegation signed a power sharing agreement with other parties late on Sunday after seizing much of the capital within a few hours, facing limited opposition from government troops who appeared reluctant to fight. Medical sources said 200 people were killed.
The Houthis have long been shunned by Yemen’s political elite. They complained they were left out of a Gulf-brokered power transfer deal after “Arab Spring” protests forced veteran leader Ali Abdullah Saleh to quit in 2012 in favor of his then vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
In addition to the insurgency by Houthis, Yemen has also been plagued by war against Sunni al Qaeda militants who are targeted by U.S. drone strikes, and by separatism in the formerly independent south.
Although a National Dialogue process which ended this year agreed to devolve more power to Yemen’s regions, the Houthis disagreed with the geographic boundaries that were proposed.
Over the past few months, they successfully fought a series of battles in their northern stronghold against rival Sunni Muslim militias and allied troops loyal to the Sunni Islamist Islah Party, bringing them to the outskirts of Sanaa.
On Monday, the Houthis were quick to show their muscle by deploying fighters on key intersections, including the main airport road. Residents said armed men also guarded major banks, including the central bank.
“They stopped and searched me and let me go,” said an official at a government bank in central Sanaa who identified himself as Aydaroos. “They acted politely and they are still around to protect the banks,” he added.
But Ahmed Abdellatif, a government employee, said he was scared. “Perhaps the other side is preparing for a new confrontation,” he told Reuters.
Last month the group, which is officially known as Ansarullah, capitalized on an unpopular government decision to raise fuel prices by sending thousands of supporters to protest.
They not only demanded that the price rises be rescinded, but also called for the cabinet to step down and make way for a more inclusive administration. The protests turned violent last week when clashes erupted with security forces the Houthis said were allied to a Sunni army general who sees them as heretics.
The Houthis focused their assault on the headquarters of the First Armoured Division, a force they describe as loyal to Sunni Islamist parties. They captured the headquarters on Sunday, seizing tanks and other military hardware.
They also attacked a religious university run by Sheikh Abdel-Majeed al-Zindani, another Sunni figure associated with the Islamist Islah party.
As the Houthis fought their way to both facilities in northern Sanaa, government institutions surrendered without a fight. Some Yemenis speculated Hadi’s government had colluded so that the Houthis would defeat figures he sees as a threat.
“Sanaa was handed over to the Houthis,” Yemeni analyst Abdel-Ghani al-Iryani said. “It appears this involved using one power to get rid of another,” he added, referring to Hadi.
While preparations to sign Sunday’s agreement, brokered by U.N. special envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar, had been ready since the morning, the Houthi delegation did not arrive in Sanaa until the evening, giving fighters time to seize the university and the division headquarters.
While Gulf Arab states have welcomed the power-sharing agreement signed on Sunday night as a step towards forming a more inclusive government, analysts said Riyadh saw the Houthi gains as a victory for its enemy Iran.
“What has happened in Yemen with the Houthis has contributed to the attitude of extreme distrust of Iran,” said a senior diplomat in the Gulf.
In Tehran, Marzieh Afkham, Iran’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, welcomed Sunday’s agreement, according to Iran’s Tasnim news service.
Mohammed al-Zulfa, a former member of Saudi Arabia’s consultative Shura Council, said Houthi connections to Iran were a big problem.
“The Saudis worry about this. Maybe it’s like Hezbollah. The Saudis should be aware of this and what is their next step,” he said, referring to the powerful Lebanese Shi‘ite group which is close to Tehran.
The Houthis consider themselves successors of the Zaydi Imamate that ruled parts of Yemen for 1,000 years before its rule was ended in a 1962 coup.
The group fought a series of battles against Saleh’s government forces between 2004 and 2010, drawing in Saudi forces at one point in 2009 before a ceasefire was declared in 2010.
Additional reporting by Sami Aboudi in Dubai and Angus McDowall in Riyadh, writing Sami Aboudi, editing by Angus McDowall and William Maclean