‘I have never seen such destruction’ as in Yemen, says aid worker

PBS Newshour reports: Fighting in Yemen after rebels overthrew the government in early 2015 has created a dire humanitarian situation unparalleled even in places as battle-scarred as Syria, according to a Doctors Without Borders worker.

“I’ve worked in war zones for the past 11 to 12 years, in some of the worst conflicts like Syria, but I have never seen such destruction conducted in such a short period as in Yemen,” wrote Michael Seawright from Auckland, New Zealand.

Seawright served as project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in the Middle Eastern region. “I was based in Saada, in the north, in a Houthi-controlled area that was experiencing almost daily attacks from coalition air forces. These airstrikes were often close to our facilities and we clearly felt their effects,” he wrote. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen conflict: Saudi-led coalition targeting civilians, UN says

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BBC News reports: The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen has targeted civilians with air strikes in a “widespread and systematic” manner, a leaked UN report says.

The UN panel of experts said civilians were also being deliberately starved as a war tactic over the past nine months.

The panel called for an inquiry into human rights abuses.

The coalition is attempting to oust the rebels from Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and restore the country’s government. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi bombing campaign — supported by Britain — leaves Yemen’s healthcare system in tatters

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The Independent reports: When the men and women who worked at Shiara hospital heard the explosion, there was little surprise. Just half an hour’s drive from the border with Saudi Arabia, in Yemen’s mountainous northern region, they were used to the sound of shelling.

What they did not expect 10 months into the Saudi-led campaign of airstrikes was that it would be their own hospital that had been hit. The bombing on 10 January left six people dead, including three staff members. Many more were injured.

“The wounded were hit by shrapnel from the missile, and also by shards of metal from the fence [around the hospital]. The injuries were brutal,” said Teresa Sancristoval, the head of the emergency desk at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which operates in the hospital.

The attack was among 130 on health facilities hit in Yemen since the Saudi-led coalition began its bombing campaign in March last year. It was the fourth on a facility supported by MSF – which says it gives detailed co-ordinates for its hospitals to both sides of the conflict. [Continue reading…]

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Drone strikes: The brand of detached warfare that Obama made his own

The Guardian reports: Faheem Qureshi’s uncles sat with their neighbors, chatting, cracking jokes and sipping tea, in their family’s lounge for male guests. Qureshi, almost 14, stood nearby, bored and restless, thinking about when he could go to the nearby playground where he and the other Ziraki village kids played badminton and cricket.

It had been a long day – Friday prayers, a food shopping errand at his mother’s behest, hosting – but also a happy occasion, as people stopped by to welcome an uncle home to North Waziristan, in tribal Pakistan, from a work excursion to the United Arab Emirates. Then he heard a sound like a plane taking off.

About two seconds later, the missile punched a hole through the lounge. Qureshi remembers feeling like his body was on fire. He ran outside, wanting to throw water on his face, but his priority was escape. The boy could not see.

This was the hidden civilian damage from the first drone strike Barack Obama ever ordered, on 23 January 2009, the inauguration of a counter-terrorism tactic likely to define Obama’s presidency in much of the Muslim world. It was the third day of his presidency. [Continue reading…]

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British arms companies ramp up bomb sales to Saudi Arabia by 100 times despite air strikes on civilians

The Independent reports: British arms companies have cashed-in on Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen by ramping up arms sales to the country’s autocratic government by over a hundred times, new figures show.

Sales of British bombs and missiles to the Saudi Arabia surged to over £1bn just three months last year, according to an official record of arms export licences quietly released by the Government this week.

The sales, up from just £9m in the preceding three-month period, have occurred while the oil-rich autocracy conducts a military campaign in its neighbour’s territory, where the United Nations has said a “humanitarian catastrophe” is unfolding. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen: Coalition drops cluster bombs in capital

Human Rights Watch reports: Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces airdropped cluster bombs on residential neighborhoods in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, early on January 6, 2016. It is not yet clear whether the attacks caused civilian casualties, but the inherently indiscriminate nature of cluster munitions makes such attacks serious violations of the laws of war. The deliberate or reckless use of cluster munitions in populated areas amounts to a war crime.

“The coalition’s repeated use of cluster bombs in the middle of a crowded city suggests an intent to harm civilians, which is a war crime,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch. “These outrageous attacks show that the coalition seems less concerned than ever about sparing civilians from war’s horrors.”

Residents of two Sanaa neighborhoods described aerial attacks consistent with cluster bomb use. A resident of al-Zira`a Street told Human Rights Watch that his family was awakened at 5:30 a.m. on January 6 by dozens of small explosions. He said that he had been at work, but that his wife told him that when the family fled they saw many homes and a local kindergarten with newly pockmarked walls and broken windows. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen intensify

IBT reports: A home for the blind and the Chamber of Commerce in Sanaa are among the sites that have been destroyed by the latest round of Saudi Arabia-led airstrikes in Yemen. The conflict between Iranian-backed Houthi fighters and the Saudi-led coalition has re-intensified after a short ceasefire ended on 2 January.

Airstrikes on Tuesday 5 January damaged a number of military and civilian sites, although no casualties were reported.

Abdullah Ahmed Banyan, a patient at the Noor Centre for the Blind, said: “People with disabilities are being struck in their residence. Around 1.30am, two missiles hit the live-in quarters of a home for the blind. Can you imagine they are striking the blind? What is this criminality? Why? Is it the blind that are fighting the war?” [Continue reading…]

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The danger in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing sectarian and anti-Iranian incitement is that it is uncontrollable

Toby Craig Jones writes: After the 2003 invasion of Iraq unleashed a new wave of Sunni-Shiite tension across the Middle East, Riyadh started to shift course. But in 2011, as the Arab world exploded in popular protests, the Saudi government cemented its commitment to sectarian confrontation. The Shiite majority population in neighboring Bahrain rose up against the Sunni-dominated monarchy. The Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia also took to the streets, protesting for political reform.

Invoking Iran and Shiites as a terrifying menace, Saudi rulers framed everything from domestic protests to intervention in Yemen in sectarian terms and in the process sought not only to demonize a minority group, but also to undermine the appeal of political reform and protest.

Sheikh Nimr had a long history of challenging the Saudi ruling family, but it was his post-2011 activism that led to his execution. After speaking defiantly about anti-Shiite discrimination, he was chased and arrested by Saudi police in July 2012. The police who apprehended him claimed that he had fired on them. Officially, Sheikh Nimr was executed for sedition and other charges. More likely, he was executed for being critical of power. He was not a liberal, but he gave voice to the kinds of criticisms the Saudi royals fear most and tolerate least.

Still, Sheikh Nimr’s execution was more important for what it communicated to the kingdom’s domestic allies and to potential future dissidents. The emergence of anti-Shiite sentiment over the past decade has not only been used to stamp out efforts by the Shiite minority to gain more political rights. In quashing calls for democracy originating from the Shiite community, Riyadh has also undermined broader demands for political reform by casting protesters as un-Islamic. Many Sunni reformers who cooperated with Shiites in the past have since stopped.

The Saudi authorities have good reason to be concerned about new calls for reform. About a week before Sheikh Nimr’s execution, the kingdom announced that it was facing an almost $100 billion deficit for its 2016 national budget. Declining oil revenues may soon force the kingdom to slash spending on social welfare programs, subsidized water, gasoline and jobs — the very social contract that informally binds ruler and ruled in Saudi Arabia. The killing of a prominent member of a loathed religious minority deflects attention from impending economic pressure.

The danger in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing sectarian and anti-Iranian incitement — of which Sheikh Nimr’s execution is just one part — is that it is uncontrollable. As is clear in Syria, Iraq and even further afield, sectarian hostility has taken on a life beyond what the kingdom’s architects are able to manage. [Continue reading…]

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The Saudi execution will reverberate across the Muslim world

Brian Whitaker writes: Saudi Arabia’s execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric, on Saturday was an act motivated more by politics than judicial considerations. Although in a BBC interview William Patey – a former British ambassador in Riyadh – charitably described Nimr’s killing as a Saudi “miscalculation”, the consequences so far have been totally predictable.

In Iran, the headquarters of Shia Islam, the authorities turned a blind eye while demonstrators set fire to the Saudi embassy, and the Saudis have now responded by severing diplomatic relations. Bahrain quickly followed suit and the UAE downgraded its relations too. The execution has also triggered demonstrations among Shia communities elsewhere – including Bahrain, where the Shia majority is ruled by a Sunni minority.

More seriously, but no less predictably, the inflaming of sectarianism will have knock-on effects in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, where Saudi Arabia backs Sunni Islamists and Iran is supporting the President Assad regime, we can expect a hardening of positions at a time when international peace efforts are aimed at softening them and starting a dialogue. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen: The country caught in the middle of the Iranian-Saudi power struggle

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Bobby Ghosh writes: Of the two things Saudi Arabia did on Jan. 2 to make the world a more dangerous place, one has caught all the attention: the execution of the dissident Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. That led to the fire-bombing of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and Riyadh’s retaliatory decision to break off diplomatic ties.

The other, however, has gone almost unnoticed: the formal ending of a poorly-observed truce in Yemen, and new airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states against Shia rebels known as the Houthis.

Much of the analysis following the events of the weekend has focused on fears that the Saudi-Iranian conflict will derail peace talks on Syria (paywall), where Iran backs president Bashar al-Assad and Saudi Arabia backs opposition rebels. Indeed, the talks planned for later this month may not now happen at all. But the consequences for Yemen are no less dire.

Yemen’s civil war, raging for nearly a year, seems fated to constantly be drowned out by tumult elsewhere in the region. (When it does get some press, headline writers inevitably label it the “forgotten war.”) Nearly 3,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting, the country’s already fragile economy has been shattered, and attempts at negotiated settlement have gone nowhere. The resumption of airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition — which enjoys US support — means the impoverished nation at the foot of the Arabian Peninsula is not likely to find peace anytime soon.[Continue reading…]

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Iran warns of ‘divine vengeance’; Saudi Arabia breaks relations

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The Washington Post reports: Saudi Arabia severed relations with Iran on Sunday amid the furor that erupted over the execution by the Saudi authorities of a prominent Shiite cleric.

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair told reporters in Riyadh that the Iranian ambassador to Saudi Arabia had been given 48 hours to leave the country, citing concerns that Tehran’s Shiite government was undermining the security of the Sunni kingdom.

Saudi Arabian diplomats had already departed Iran after angry mobs trashed and burned the Saudi embassy in Tehran overnight Saturday, in response to the execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr earlier in the day.

Iran’s Supreme Leader warned on Sunday that there would be divine retribution for Saudi Arabia’s rulers after the execution of a renowned Shiite cleric, sustaining the soaring regional tensions that erupted in the wake of the killing.

The warning came hours after crowds of protesters stormed and torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran to vent their anger at the execution of Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, who was among 47 people put to death in the kingdom on Saturday.

Shiites around the world expressed outrage, potentially complicating a surge of U.S. diplomacy aimed at bringing peace to the region, according to Toby Matthiesen, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the University of Oxford.

“Nimr had become a household name amongst Shiite Muslims around the world. Many had thought his execution would be a red line and would further inflame sectarian tensions,” he said. “So this will complicate a whole range of issues, from the Syrian crisis to Yemen.”

Saudi Arabia and Iran are backing rival sides in Syria’s war, and their enmity risks derailing a diplomatic effort led by the United States and Russia to convene peace talks between the factions in Geneva this month.

The two feuding powers also support opposing sides in the war in Yemen and more broadly find themselves in opposition in the deeply divided politics of the mixed Sunni-Shiite nations of Iraq and Lebanon.

The Obama administration’s hopes that the conclusion last summer of an agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program would help bridge the sectarian divide between Tehran and the United States’ biggest Arab ally were further diminished by the eruption of fury that followed Nimr’s death. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia’s mounting security challenges

Bruce Riedel writes: The kingdom announced its new budget Dec. 28 with a record $87 billion deficit. Revenues are projected at $137 billion and spending at $224 billion.

Riyadh’s immediate priority is the war in Yemen. The war costs an estimated $200 million a day, or $6 billion a month. The Saudi coalition and the Houthi rebels both violated the last United Nations-sponsored cease-fire. The Saudis did gain control of the capital of Jawf province along the Saudi border during the supposed truce. The talks in Biel, Switzerland, did not produce a breakthrough, but are to resume Jan. 14.

The Houthis show no sign of giving up. Their leadership remains hard-line and defiant. The war appears to be a bloody stalemate that has catastrophic humanitarian costs for Yemenis. The outside world pays little if any attention. [Continue reading…]

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How Sunni-Shia sectarianism is poisoning Yemen

Farea al-Muslimi writes: In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Hamoud al-Mikhlafi, leader of a Taiz-based group fighting against Houthi militias and forces loyal to Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, described his opponents as “Persians” in reference to their Shia religious affiliation and support from Iran. In fact, both Saleh and the leaders of the Houthi militia belong to the Zaydi school of Islam, an indigenous Yemeni branch of Shia Islam that is distinct from the Twelver Shiism practiced in Iran. But Mikhlafi’s assertion fits with a growing sectarian polarization in Yemen that relies on language borrowed from the Sunni-Shia conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Iran, rather than drawing on Yemeni religious culture.

This is a rapidly growing phenomenon. Even Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi has on occasion described the Houthis, who expelled him from Yemen in March 2015, as “Twelver Shia.” “And two years prior, the anti-Houthi tribal leader Hussein al-Ahmar called himself “the powerful lion of the Sunnis,” thus portraying himself as a defender of Yemen’s Sunni majorityagainst the other sect. [Continue reading…]

Saeed Al-Batati writes: Three years after they were kicked out of several cities in south Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has come back and overrun two cities in the province of Abyan, local government officials and residents told Middle East Eye. But people who lived through al-Qaeda’s reign of Abyan in 2011 now talk about new “tolerant and friendly” militants.

In Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, said that early this month al-Qaeda militants quietly stormed military camps and police stations in the city without even drawing the attention of students in schools or public servants in their offices.

“Zinjibar is quiet. People are busy with their daily life,” the government officials said.

Many provinces in southern Yemen have been in a state of anarchy since the Saudi-backed forces supporting President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and local tribesmen drove out rebel Houthis. Then separatists and Islamists aligned with the Saudi-backed forces failed to fill the vacuum left by Yemeni soldiers who headed north to fight the Houthis. So al-Qaeda came in and took the place of the former government-run security agencies. [Continue reading…]

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Life under siege: Inside Taiz, the Yemeni city being slowly strangled

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes: Ismail lies on green linoleum sheets, his black eyes too large for his gaunt face. Craning his neck, he tries to inspect the bandage covering his body, but weakness pulls him back. From the pillow, he whispers “hawan” (mortar).

Ismail, who says he is 12 but has the body of a six-year-old, used to make a few Yemeni riyals every day by washing graves in a new cemetery in the city of Taiz devoted to those killed in Yemen’s ongoing civil war.

Just before noon on one day in November, he and his two young cousins were sitting under a mango tree, cleaning the grave of a 10-year-old girl called Basma, when three mortar shells fell. A splatter of deep scars on the tree trunk and on the grave’s concrete surface mark the spot where one exploded. The two cousins, aged two and four, died instantly.

Ismail was severely injured and is now in the Rawdha, a hotel-turned-hospital in Taiz, Yemen’s second most populated city, a place being slowly strangled by a Houthi rebel siege. He is far from the only one here. One floor above, Amer recounts how he was hit by an explosion after dining in a restaurant and walking out into the street. The threads stitching folds of flesh on the stump of his left leg are black and new. [Continue reading…]

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Britain: Saudi Arabia’s silent partner in Yemen’s civil war

At a hospital in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, 18-month-old Faisal is treated for severe acute malnutrition. His mother braved a two-day journey to take him to the hospital from her village – a trip that would have taken four hours by bus in peace time.

The Independent reports: If you were told that British fighter jets and British bombs were involved in a Middle Eastern war which has left thousands of civilians dead, you could be forgiven for assuming this referred to Iraq, or perhaps the more recent UK aerial campaign extended to Syria.

What is less likely to spring to mind is another, forgotten conflict in the region – a war sponsored by the UK that is rarely talked about. For the past nine months, British-supplied planes and British-made missiles have been part of near-daily air raids in Yemen carried out by a nine-country, Saudi Arabian-led coalition.

In this conveniently hidden campaign, thousands have died. Bombardments by the Saudi coalition accounted for 60 per cent of the 4,493 civilian casualties in the first seven months of this year. Saudi Arabia waded into what began as a domestic political power struggle between the country’s incumbent president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and his predecessor of 33 years’ standing, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The marginalised, predominantly Shia Houthi militiamen, viewed as an Iranian proxy by the Sunni kingdom, joined forces with Saleh’s loyalists in the military to seize swathes of territory over the past 18 months, eventually forcing Hadi into self-imposed exile in Riyadh earlier this year. [Continue reading…]

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