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Monday, March 23, 2015

Iran shouldn’t get ‘undeserved’ deal, says Saudi FM

Yemen Houthi rebels advance despite Saudi-led air strikes Fri, Mar 27 20:47 PM EDT image 1 of 9 By Mohammed Mukhashef ADEN (Reuters) - Yemen's Houthi rebels made broad gains in the country's south and east on Friday despite a second day of Saudi-led air strikes meant to check the Iranian-backed militia's efforts to overthrow President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Shi'ite Muslim Houthi fighters and allied army units gained their first foothold on Yemen's Arabian Sea coast by seizing the port of Shaqra 100km (60 miles) east of Aden, residents told Reuters. Explosions and crackles of small gunfire rang out across Aden late on Friday as Houthis made a push on the southern port city's airport, a witness said. The advances threaten Hadi's last refuge in Yemen and potentially undermine the air campaign to support him. The spokesman for the Saudi-led operation, Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, told a news conference in Riyadh that defending the Aden government was the campaign's "main objective". "The operation will continue as long as there is a need for it to continue," Asseri said. Warplanes targeted Houthi forces controlling Yemen's capital Sanaa and their northern heartland on Friday. Asseri said that planes from the United Arab Emirates had carried out their first strikes in the past 24 hours. In a boost for Saudi Arabia, Morocco said it would join the rapidly assembled Sunni Muslim coalition against the Houthis. Pakistan, named by Saudi Arabia as a partner, said it had made no decision on whether to contribute. REGIONAL CONTEST Riyadh’s military intervention is the latest front in a growing regional contest for power with Iran that is also playing out in Syria, where Tehran backs Assad’s government against mainly Sunni rebels, and Iraq, where Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias are playing a major role in fighting. Sunni monarchies in the Gulf are backing Hadi and his fellow Sunnis in the country's south against the Shi'ite advance. Yemen's powerful ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose military units fight alongside the Houthis, called on Friday for a cessation of hostilities by both sides, according to a statement carried by his party's website. Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen said the air campaign could end within days. He said the door was still open for dialogue with the Houthis, while in a Facebook posting, Hadi urged Yemenis to be patient and predicted the Houthis would soon be gone. But the Houthis and allied army units seized the southern town of Shaqra in Abyan province on Friday, gaining access to the Arabian Sea, residents said. Their entry into the city means they control most land routes to Aden and can block tribal fighters trying to come in to reinforce Hadi's troops. Residents said dozens of pickup trucks loaded with tribal fighters have reached the town of Mudyah and were expected to clash with the Houthi forces based in Shaqra and the town of Lodar. During a week of intense fighting, the Houthis have taken the Red Sea port of al-Mukha to Aden's northwest, and the city's northern outskirts, suggesting Aden is danger, despite the air strikes against the Houthis. Witnesses in Sanaa said Houthi fighters and allied military units were re-positioning some anti-aircraft units at police stations in some neighborhoods, causing panic among residents, who fear they will become targets for air strikes. Residents said aircraft targeted bases around Sanaa of Republican Guards allied to the Houthis, and also struck near a military installation that houses missiles. The Houthi-controlled Saba news agency put the death toll in Sanaa at 24 and said 43 were wounded and 14 houses were destroyed. Houthi-run al-Masirah television also said 15 people were killed in an air strike on a market in the northern city of Saada. OIL REGION HIT The Republican Guards are loyal to Saleh, who retains wide power despite having left office in 2012 after mass protests. Earlier air strikes south of the city and in the oil-producing Marib region appeared to target military installations also affiliated with Saleh. Warplanes also hit two districts in the Houthis' northerly home province of Saada, tribal sources said. The coalition began air strikes on Thursday to try to roll back Houthi gains and shore up Hadi, who has been holed up in Aden after fleeing Sanaa in February. Hadi left Aden on Thursday to attend an Arab summit in Egypt on Saturday, where he aims to build support for the air strikes. U.S. President Barack Obama expressed his support for the Saudi-led military action in a phone call with Saudi King Salman on Friday, the White House said. In his first reaction to the attacks, Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi on Thursday called Saudi Arabia a bad neighbor and "Satan's horn", saying in a televised speech Yemenis would confront the "criminal, unjust and unjustified aggression". Mosques in Riyadh on Friday preached fiery sermons against the Houthis and their Iranian allies, describing the fight as a religious duty. Saudi Arabia's top clerical council gave its blessing to the campaign. In the Iranian capital Tehran, Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Kazem Sadeghi described the attacks as "an aggression and interference in Yemen’s internal affairs". Iran has denounced the assault on the Houthis and demanded an immediate halt to Saudi-led military operations. While U.S. officials have downplayed the scope of the ties between Iran and the Houthis, Saudi ambassador to Washington Adel al-Jubeir said members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Iranian-backed Hezbollah are on the ground advising the Houthis. The Saudi military spokesman said there were no plans at this stage for ground force operations, but if the need arose, Saudi and allied ground forces would repel "any aggression." (With additional reporting by Sami Aboudi, Maha El Dahan, and Ali Abdelatti and Eric Beech in Washington; writing by William Maclean; editing by Philippa Fletcher, Giles Elgood and Andrew Heavens) ====== WASHINGTON | BY MATT SPETALNICK, WARREN STROBEL AND MARK HOSENBALL (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia kept some key details of its military action in Yemen from Washington until the last moment, U.S. officials said, as the kingdom takes a more assertive regional role to compensate for perceived U.S. disengagement. The Middle East's top oil power told the United States weeks ago it was weighing action in Yemen but only informed Washington of the exact details just before Thursday's unprecedented air strikes against Iran-allied Houthi rebels, the officials said. U.S. President Barack Obama's Middle East policy increasingly relies on surrogates rather than direct U.S. military involvement. He is training Syrian rebels to take on the government of President Bashar Assad and this week launched air strikes to back up Iraqi forces trying to retain the city of Tikrit. To Obama's Republican critics, he is ceding the traditional U.S. leadership role. The White House denies it is disengaging from the region and says it has been in close contact with the Saudis over their plans in recent days. Although the Saudis spoke with top U.S. officials as they debated an air assault in support of embattled Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, U.S. officials acknowledged gaps in their knowledge of the kingdom’s battle plans and objectives. Asked when he was told by Saudi Arabia that it would take military action in Yemen, General Lloyd Austin, the head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, told a Senate hearing on Thursday he spoke with Saudi Arabia’s chief of defense "right before they took action." He added that he couldn't assess the likelihood of the campaign succeeding because he didn't know the "specific goals and objectives." Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, said Riyadh consulted closely with Washington on Yemen - but ultimately decided it had to act quickly as Houthi rebels moved toward Hadi's last redoubt in the southern city of Aden. "The concern was, if Aden falls, then what do you do?" al-Jubeir told a small group of reporters on Thursday. "The concern was that the situation was so dire you had to move." Saudi Arabia's air strikes point toward an aspiration to defend its regional interests with less reliance on the U.S. security umbrella that has long been the main thrust of Washington’s relations with the oil-rich kingdom. MORE ASSERTIVE Riyadh has been growing increasingly assertive since early 2011, when Washington's reluctance to back former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in the face of mass protests led the Saudis to doubt its commitment to traditional Arab allies. Obama's decision in summer 2013 not to bomb Syria after the use of poison gas there, coupled with its sudden announcement it had conducted secret nuclear talks with Riyadh's nemesis Iran, further alarmed the Saudis. "If the operation is successful, I think we will see a major turn in Saudi foreign policy. It's going to be assertive, become more aggressive in dealing with the Iranian expansionism,” said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst with ties to the Saudi Interior Ministry. The Obama administration is reluctant to get drawn into direct military action in another Arab conflict when it is already facing daunting challenges in Syria and Iraq. The worsening Yemen conflict forced Washington to evacuate all remaining U.S. special forces from the country, further undermining the U.S. campaign of drone strikes against the most lethal branch of al Qaeda based there. Sunni Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen is the latest front in a growing regional contest for power with Iran that is also playing out in Syria, where Tehran backs Assad’s government, and Iraq, where Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias are playing a major role in fighting. While U.S. officials have downplayed the scope of the relationship between Iran and Yemen’s Houthis, al-Jubeir said that members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian-backed Hezbollah are on the ground advising the Houthis. One senior U.S. official described Riyadh's operation as a "panic response" to the fast-deteriorating situation in Yemen that the Saudis feared could spill over its border. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested that the 10-nation Saudi-led coalition had been patched together so quickly that its effectiveness was in doubt. The White House says it will not join directly in military operations in Yemen, but has set up a cell to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support to the operation. But U.S. officials said they were sharing intelligence information on a limited basis so far. U.S. officials said they discussed the deteriorating situation in Yemen with Saudi Arabia over the course of recent weeks. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed Yemen at length during a March 5 visit to Riyadh, but it was "not clear (the Saudis) had made any decisions about potential action at that point," said a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We had been talking with the Saudis throughout the course of the last several days about what they were thinking and what type of support we could render with regards to their actions in Yemen," U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said. (Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington and Angus McDowall in Riyadh. Editing Iran calls Saudi airstrikes in Yemen 'dangerous step' By AHMED AL-HAJ Mar. 26, 2015 5:14 AM EDT 720 11 photos Mideast Yemen People carry the body of a child they uncovered from under the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi... Read more SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes Thursday targeting military installations in Yemen held by Shiite rebels who were taking over a key port city in the country's south and had driven the embattled president to flee by sea, security officials said. Some of the strikes hit positions in the country's capital, Sanaa. The airstrikes, which had the support of nine other countries, drew a strong reaction from Iran which called the operation an "invasion" and a "dangerous step" that will worsen the crisis in the country. The back-and-forth between the regional heavyweights was threatening to turn impoverished Yemen into a proxy battle between the Middle East's Sunni powers and Shiite-led Iran. Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya News reported that the kingdom had deployed 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers and other navy units. The Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, were calling on their supporters to protest in the streets of Sanaa on Thursday afternoon, Yemen's Houthi-controlled state news agency SABA reported. On Wednesday President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a close U.S. ally, fled Yemen by sea as the rebels started taking over the southern port city of Aden where he had taken refuge. Saudi ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir announced the military operation in a news conference in Washington. He said his government had consulted closely with the U.S. and other allies but that the U.S. military was not involved in the operations. The White House said in a statement late Wednesday that the U.S. was coordinating military and intelligence support with the Saudis but not taking part directly in the strikes. Other regional players were involved in the Saudi operation: The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia in a statement published by the Saudi Press Agency, saying they would answer a request from Hadi "to protect Yemen and his dear people from the aggression of the Houthi militias which were and are still a tool in the hands of foreign powers that don't stop meddling with the security and stability of brotherly Yemen." Oman, the sixth member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, didn't sign onto the statement. Egypt also announced political and military support. "There is coordination ongoing now with Saudi Arabia and the brotherly gulf countries about preparations to participate with an Egyptian air and naval forces and ground troops if necessary," it said in a statement carried by the state news agency. Pakistan, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan were also joining the operation, the Saudi Press Agency reported Thursday. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies believe the Houthis are tools for Iran to seize control of Yemen and say they intend to stop the takeover. The Houthis deny they are backed by Iran. Security officials in Yemen said the Saudi airstrikes targeted a camp for U.S.-trained special forces, which is controlled by generals loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The officials said the targets included the missile base in Sanaa that was controlled by the Houthis earlier this year. One of the Yemeni security officials said the strikes also targeted the fuel depot at the base. The Houthis said in a statement to reporters that Saudi jets hit the military base, known as al-Duleimi, and that they responded with anti-aircraft missiles. Riad Yassin, Yemen's foreign minister, told Saudi's Al-Hadath TV that the airstrikes were welcomed. "I hope the Houthis listen to the sound of reason. With what is happening, they forced us into this," he said. The crumbling of Hadi's government is a blow to Washington's counterterrorism strategy against al-Qaida's branch in Yemen, considered to be the most powerful in the terrorist network. Over the weekend, about 100 U.S. military advisers withdrew from the al-Annad air base where they had been leading a drone campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. Yemen now faces fragmentation, with Houthis controlling much of the north, including the capital of Sanaa, and several southern provinces. In recent days, they took the third-largest city, Taiz, as well as much of the province of Lahj, both just to the north of Aden. The Houthis are backed by Saleh, the autocrat who ruled Yemen for three decades until he was removed amid a 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Some of the best-equipped and trained military and security units remained loyal to Saleh and they have helped the Houthis in their rapid advance. Hadi left Sanaa for Aden earlier this month after escaping house arrest under the Houthis, who overran the capital six months ago. In Aden, he had sought to make a last stand, claiming it as the temporary seat of what remained of his government, backed by allied militias and loyal army units. With Houthis and Saleh forces closing in on multiple fronts, Hadi and his aides left Aden Wednesday on two boats in the Gulf of Aden, security and port officials told The Associated Press. The officials would not specify his destination. Read more Florida teen dies after being shocked by police Associated Press AP PHOTOS: Brazil fans in shock after 7-1 loss Associated Press 'Simpsons' creator finds funny in his cancer fight Associated Press Zemanta Saudi Arabia bombs Yemen, launches coalition op against Houthi rebels Published time: March 25, 2015 23:49 Edited time: March 26, 2015 02:20 Get short URL Reuters / Fahad Shadeed Air Force, Army, Conflict, Middle East, Military, Religion, Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabian forces, joined by nine other countries, have launched a military operation in Yemen against Shiite Houthi rebels, the Saudi ambassador to the US said. The offensive, which started with airstrikes, will also involve “other military assets.” According to Ambassador Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, the military operation in Yemen started at 7 p.m. EST (11 p.m. GMT). The US is not participating in the operation, the envoy stressed. Al Arabiya reported that warplanes of the Royal Saudi Air Force bombed positions of Yemen’s Houthi militia, targeting their air defenses. Reports from the ground indicate that Saudi forces have bombed an office belonging to Houthi rebels in Sanaa’s Jiraf area, with many casualties. Residents are saying that warplanes are targeting the capital’s airport, according to Reuters. Houthis are using heavy anti-aircraft fire to respond to the bombing. Another warplane attack was said to have been launched on Sanaa’s Dulaimi military airbase. The bombers affiliation could not be immediately confirmed. Al-Jubair told Al Jazeera that Houthi fighters are in control of Yemeni’s ballistic and heavy weaponry and could be taking over the country’s air force. Hadi’s government officials have been calling on Gulf states to impose a no-fly zone over Yemen. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait issued a joint statement saying that they “decided to repel Houthi militias, Al-Qaeda and ISIS (Islamic State) in the country.” The Gulf states said they were responding to a “major threat” to the stability of the region, saying that their cause is to “repel Houthi aggression” in Yemen. Al-Jubeir said the 10-country coalition launched the campaign “to protect and defend the legitimate government” of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after his appeal to intervene. Hadi is believed to have fled the country as Houthi rebels captured the southern seaport of Aden, the deposed leader's stronghold. Egypt is providing political and military support for the operation, the country’s state media said. Cairo is prepared to take part in air, naval and ground operations if necessary, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry has announced. While the Saudi envoy insisted Washington only “consulted” Riyadh, a US official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that America has been supporting the military operation in an unspecified way. An unnamed US official confirmed to Reuters that the Saudis consulted with Washington about the military operation at the “highest levels” before proceeding with the attack, adding that US President Barack Obama knew of Riyadh’s plans to invade Yemen. Read more Saudi Arabia moves heavy arms to border with chaos-stricken Yemen Houthi leaders have in turn branded the Saudi offensive as “aggression” and warned that it will drag the entire Gulf region into conflict. “There is an aggression underway on Yemen and we will confront it valiantly,” a member of the Houthi political office, Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, told Al Jazeera. “Military operations will drag the region to a wide war.” Ships in the region have been urged not to approach Yemen’s ports due to the ongoing military operation, Saudi-owned Al-Hadath TV reported. US President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-led military operations in Yemen, the White House said in a statement, confirming that Washington had close communication with Hadi, the Saudis and other GCC states prior to the launch of the military operation. “While US forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort, we are establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate US military and intelligence support,” the statement said. Moreover, the White House urged the Houthis to immediately halt “destabilizing military actions” and to return to political dialogue with the deposed Yemeni government. Meanwhile, UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told TASS that the UN is aware of Saudi Arabia launching a military operation in Yemen and is looking into more details. Just a few hours before the operation, Haq told journalists that the UN does not believe in military actions to resolve the conflict in Yemen. ===== Exclusive: Saudi Arabia building up military near Yemen border - U.S. officials Tue, Mar 24 19:49 PM EDT By Mark Hosenball, Phil Stewart and Matt Spetalnick WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is moving heavy military equipment including artillery to areas near its border with Yemen, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, raising the risk that the Middle East’s top oil power will be drawn into the worsening Yemeni conflict. The buildup follows a southward advance by Iranian-backed Houthi Shi'ite militants who took control of the capital Sanaa in September and seized the central city of Taiz at the weekend as they move closer to the new southern base of U.S.-supported President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The slide toward war in Yemen has made the country a crucial front in Saudi Arabia's region-wide rivalry with Iran, which Riyadh accuses of sowing sectarian strife through its support for the Houthis. The conflict risks spiraling into a proxy war with Shi'ite Iran backing the Houthis, whose leaders adhere to the Zaydi sect of Shi'ite Islam, and Saudi Arabia and the other regional Sunni Muslim monarchies backing Hadi. The armor and artillery being moved by Saudi Arabia could be used for offensive or defensive purposes, two U.S. government sources said. Two other U.S. officials said the build-up appeared to be defensive. One U.S. government source described the size of the Saudi buildup on Yemen's border as "significant" and said the Saudis could be preparing air strikes to defend Hadi if the Houthis attack his refuge in the southern seaport of Aden. Another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington had acquired intelligence about the Saudi build-up. But there was no immediate word on the precise location near the border or the exact size of the force deployed. Hadi, who supported Washington’s campaign of deadly drone strikes on a powerful al Qaeda branch based in Yemen, has been holed up in Aden with his loyalist forces since he fled Sanaa in February. On Tuesday, forces loyal to Hadi drove Houthi fighters from two towns they had seized hours earlier, residents said, apparently checking an advance by the Shi'ite fighters toward Aden. SAUDIS "DEEPLY CONCERNED" Saudi Arabia faces the risk of the turmoil spilling across its porous 1,800 km (1,100 mile)-long border with Yemen and into its Shi'ite Eastern Province where the kingdom's richest oil deposits lie. “The Saudis are just really deeply concerned about what they see as an Iranian stronghold in a failed state along their border,” U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Matthew Tueller told Reuters on Monday at a conference hosted by the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce in Washington. But a former senior U.S. official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the prospects for successful external intervention in Yemen appeared slim. He said Hadi’s prospects appeared to be worsening and that for now he was “pretty well pinned down.” Riyadh hosted top-level talks with Gulf Arab neighbors on Saturday that backed Hadi as Yemen's legitimate president and offered "all efforts" to preserve the country's stability. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said on Monday Arab countries would take necessary measures to protect the region against "aggression" by the Houthi movement if a peaceful solution could not be found. In March 2011, Saudi troops, along with those from the United Arab Emirates, entered neighboring Bahrain after weeks of protests by that country’s Shi’ite majority that Riyadh feared could lead to an expansion of Iran’s influence. A spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment on any military movements. Yemen asked the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday to back military action by "willing countries" to combat Houthi militias, according to a letter from Hadi seen by Reuters. Hadi wants the 15-member body to adopt a resolution that would authorize "willing countries that wish to help Yemen to provide immediate support for the legitimate authority by all means and measures to protect Yemen and deter the Houthi aggression." Fighting has spread across the Arabian peninsula country since last September when the Houthis seized Sanaa and advanced into Sunni Muslim areas. U.S. officials said on Saturday that the United States had evacuated all its remaining personnel in Yemen, including about 100 special operations forces, because of the security situation. The end of a U.S. security presence inside the country has dealt a blow to Washington's ability to monitor and fight al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate. The Houthis have denied taking material and financial support from Tehran. But last year Yemeni, Western and Iranian sources gave Reuters details of Iranian military and financial support to the Houthis before and after their takeover of Sanaa last year. However, U.S. officials have said that Iranian backing for the Houthi rebels has been largely limited to funding. They say Iran has its hands full providing armed assistance to its allies in Syria and Iraq. (Additional reporting by Warren Strobel; Editing by Jason Szep and Stuart Grudgings) =============== AFP — Updated about an hour ago Whatsapp FM accused Tehran of continued meddling in the affairs of Arab countries and attempts to stoke sectarian conflicts. —AFP/File FM accused Tehran of continued meddling in the affairs of Arab countries and attempts to stoke sectarian conflicts. —AFP/File RIYADH: Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal said on Monday that Iran, which is negotiating with world powers on its nuclear programme, should not get “undeserved deals”. “It is impossible that Iran should get undeserved deals,” Prince Saud said at a joint news conference with visiting British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. Prince Saud called for guarantees that the programme “does not turn into a nuclear weapon that could pose a threat to the region and the world, especially in view of Iran’s aggressive politics in the region”. The minister also accused Tehran of “continued meddling in the affairs of Arab countries and attempts to stoke sectarian conflicts in the region”. Published in Dawn March 24th , 2015 On a mobile phone? Get the Dawn Mobile App: Apple Store | Google Play ========================= Yemen foes square off as fears of war, Saudi-Iran rivalry grow Mon, Mar 23 21:29 PM EDT image 1 of 7 By Angus McDowall and Noah Browning RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) - Yemen's top factions are squaring off for battle after months of skirmishes, turning respectively to neighboring Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran for help in what may become all-out war. With President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi seeking a comeback from the port city of Aden while the Shi'ite Houthi movement controls the capital Sanaa, rival administrations are trading bellicose rhetoric as fighting intensifies and factions commandeer airfields for the next stage of the struggle. Somewhat on the sidelines, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State are waiting to exploit what some fear could become Yemen's worst conflict since a 1994 civil war. "For years Yemen has defied all the odds and proved wrong those who said it was on the brink of civil war and about to collapse," Farea al-Muslimi, a researcher with the Carnegie Middle East Center said. "But we may have run out of miracles." Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen called on Monday for Gulf Arab help to prevent the Houthis' getting air control. "We have expressed to the Gulf Cooperation Council, the United Nations as well as the international community that there should be a no-fly zone, and the use of military aircraft should be prevented at the airports controlled by the Houthis," he told the newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat. United Nations mediator Jamal Benomar said on Sunday that Yemen had been pushed "towards the edge of civil war" that he believed neither the Houthis nor Hadi could win. "Any side that would want to push the country in either direction would be inviting a protracted conflict in the vein of an Iraq-Libya-Syria combined scenario," he told the Security Council. Violence has spread across the Arabian peninsula country since last year, when Houthi militia seized Sanaa and effectively removed Hadi, a U.S. ally. This angered the Sunni-ruled Gulf states led by Riyadh, which regards the once obscure group from the northern highlands as terrorists. TEST OF STRENGTH The turmoil has made Yemen a front in Saudi Arabia's region-wide rivalry with Iran, mainly contested on sectarian lines, by creating an ally for Tehran in its backyard. Riyadh hosted top-level talks with Gulf Arab neighbors on Saturday that backed Hadi as Yemen's legitimate president and offered "all efforts" to preserve the country's stability. It was not clear if that included military aid. The Houthis, who share a Shi'ite ideology with Iran, have denied taking material and financial support from Tehran. But last year Yemeni, Western and Iranian sources gave Reuters details of Iranian military and financial support to the Houthis before and after their takeover of Sanaa on Sept. 21. The Houthis adhere to the Zaydi sect of Shi'ite Islam, and despite Yemen's tradition of religious tolerance, their advance has alarmed many Sunnis, some of whom have allied with AQAP. In a blow to U.S. counter-terrorism operations, Washington said on Saturday it had evacuated its remaining personnel, including about 100 special operations forces, because of the deteriorating security situation. With both Hadi and the Houthis indulging in chest-beating propaganda and staking rival claims to be the rightful rulers, the stage now appears set for a military test of strength. Both have support in the factionalized military. In the past week the Houthis, backed by troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have advanced on Hadi's forces in the south and clashed with tribes in central provinces. Fighting has focused on gaining strategic positions and air bases but analysts fear the consequences should Saudi Arabia and Iran join in more openly. "So far in the crisis there has not been that tipping point towards war, partly because there has been no external backer to provide enough munitions," said Fernando Carvajal of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Britain's Exeter University, warning of the risks of more outside involvement. External help could prove decisive. Hadi's control of Aden's sea and air ports would allow his Gulf Arab allies to supply his now meager military forces with ease. Houthi control of the Red Sea port of Hodeida and the onset of direct Tehran-Sanaa flights last month means Iran could offer its allies similar assistance. RESISTANCE For now the Houthis and Saleh, a critic of Hadi, appear to hold the upper hand, but this may not last. Their forces, reckoned by analysts to represent around two thirds of the old Yemeni army, face three main enemies: units loyal to Hadi in Aden, Sunni tribes in Marib province and tribes fighting alongside AQAP in al-Bayda province. "The Houthis and Saleh might be able to win the initial battle but they'll lose the war, because they will be faced with a lot of resistance. They're already drowning in Bayda," said Nadwa Dawsari, a researcher on Yemen's tribes. Much of the past week's fighting has been over air power. Hadi built a power base in the air force when in Sanaa, replacing its commander and purging officers seen as disloyal. But last week the Houthis installed a new air force chief and unidentified jets bombed Hadi's Aden residence. Hadi's men then seized Aden's airport and radar station at al-Anad airbase. More immediate ground fighting may come in Marib, a big prize because of its oil facilities, where 12 people were killed on Saturday in clashes between the Houthis and Sunni tribes. Another fear of Arab and Western states is that either the Houthis or Sunni jihadi groups may gain the space to threaten regional energy facilities and the Bab al-Mandeb shipping route, a vital energy gateway for Europe, Asia and the United States. (Editing by William Maclean and David Stamp)

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