U.S. resumes drone strikes in Yemen as Houthis tighten control

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Houthi rebels in Yemen dissolve parliament, say they will form interim bodies to run the country

Amid deepening political turmoil here, the United States has resumed drone strikes against Al Qaeda’s most feared franchise without seeking approval from the Shiite Muslim rebels who have tightened their control of a government once considered a close American ally.

The insurgents, known as Houthis, dissolved Yemen’s parliament Friday and announced plans to set up interim bodies to run the government, a move that opponents said amounted to a coup. The capital was calm but tense as armed men loyal to the movement quickly filled the streets.

Yemen has been roiled by uncertainty since the Houthis seized the presidential palace and put U.S.-backed President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi under house arrest on Jan. 22, leading him and his Cabinet to tender their resignations.

Over the last two years, Hadi had strongly supported U.S. military and CIA drone strikes and special operations raids against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP. The Yemen-based group has repeatedly sought to bomb U.S. airliners and last month claimed responsibility for the massacre of 12 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

The counter-terrorism cooperation was so close that President Obama in August hailed Yemen as a model for the American-led campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

But the Houthis surged out of their northern stronghold in September and claimed large tracts of Yemen, including much of Sana, the capital. The U.S. was forced to halt drone strikes in November as a three-way power struggle raged between Hadi’s security forces, the Houthis and AQAP.

Although Houthi fighters have battled the Al Qaeda branch, which is Sunni Muslim, the Shiite Muslim insurgent group is deeply suspicious of American aims in Yemen and is publicly opposed to the drone strikes. U.S. officials believe the Houthis have received financial and military support from Iran.

American officials in Yemen have been in indirect communication with the Houthis, but have not begun a working relationship, according to U.S. officials familiar with the diplomacy who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

Instead, the Obama administration pressed ahead on its own and launched three drone strikes against AQAP targets in the last two weeks.

The attacks “are a pretty clear signal that the U.S. is not going to step away from what it considers to be very much in its national security interest,” said Stephen Seche, who was U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010. “The message is, ‘You can rest assured we’re going to be very diligent about doing what we feel we have to do.’”

In the most significant raid, a drone-launched missile on Jan. 31 killed Harith bin Ghazi Nathari, a spiritual leader of AQAP and a member of its top command. The militant group announced his death online.

U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations, say the Houthis appear to have turned a blind eye. They haven’t objected to the drone attacks or sought to halt operations in the country by U.S. special operations teams.

U.S. authorities still rely on a few units in Yemen’s security forces for intelligence collection and launching counter-terrorism operations, but far less than when Hadi was in charge. The officials acknowledge that the political instability has undercut U.S. efforts to target AQAP.

Even if the Houthis agree to support the U.S. effort, their contributions are likely to be limited, experts say.

The Shiite group will find it difficult to operate in Sunni-dominated areas of Yemen where AQAP, which has sought to align itself with local Sunni tribes, is strongest.

Moreover, Houthi control is largely limited to Yemen’s northwest, which includes the capital. AQAP operations extend over a vastly larger area, from south central Yemen into the east and west.

The political crisis deepened with the Houthis’ latest move to seize power.

In a statement read Friday on a Houthi-affiliated TV channel, the rebels said they were fulfilling “the will of the people” in nullifying the parliament.

The group said a new interim assembly would be formed, with various factions represented, and that the assembly would in turn pick a five-member council to run Yemen’s day-to-day affairs.

Swift objections were sounded by opponents, who include Sultan Aradah, governor of Marib, a province east of Sana where major electrical installations are located. Aradah said that his province’s tribal leaders were holding urgent consultations, but that they considered the Houthis’ actions a coup d’etat.

The United Nations, which has brokered talks to try to resolve the political impasse, said it would not acknowledge what it described as a unilateral move by the Houthis.

The Houthis had previously demanded a greater share of political power, but had voiced willingness to work with other factions. The political parties failed to reach agreement in talks this week, however.

The Houthi announcement, issued from the presidential palace, was described as a “constitutional decree,” which only the president is empowered under the law to issue. There was no sign that Hadi and his Cabinet have been freed from house arrest.

The U.N. envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, left for Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s powerful and Sunni-dominated neighbor. The Saudis have been alarmed by growing unrest in Yemen, and have cut off billions of dollars in aid that helped keep the impoverished country afloat.

The Saudis’ main Shiite rival, Iran, denies that it is the Houthis’ patron. Another presumed backer of the rebels is Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s onetime president, who was deposed amid the regional “Arab Spring” uprisings in 2011 and has been accused of seeking to sabotage the country’s hoped-for democratic transition.

Special correspondent Al-Alayaa reported from Sana and Richter from Washington. Times staff writers Laura King in Cairo and Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.

Follow Paul Richter on Twitter: @richtpau

Follow Brian Bennett on Twitter: @ByBrianBennett

For more news from the Middle East, follow @laurakingLAT on Twitter

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

4:11 p.m.: This article has been updated and expanded.

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