The Houthis consider Saleh's regime illegitimate and "an ally of Americans and Jews," in the words of Houthi leader Abdul Malik. The Houthis aim to establish a revivalist Imamate (the Shiite version of a caliphate) in Yemen through their Organization of Youthful Believers, which Abdul Malik's predecessor, Hussein Badr ad din al Houthi, established. Hussein Badr was killed by Yemeni forces in 2004.
Saleh calls the Houthis "racist" and disputes the claim that the Houthi rebellion is a sectarian issue. "They try to exploit people, they say the state is fighting all Zaydis," President Saleh told The New York Times in a 2008 interview. "The rebels also believe that power should be given to the Hashemite family, the so-called Ahal al Beit [the name given to those who claim lineal descent from the prophet Mohammed]. Some Hashemites are nationalists and patriots who believe in democracy and the multi-party system. The others believe in a racist vision, the restoration of the role of the Imam."
Virtually all of Yemen's 20 million citizens are Muslims. There are no solid statistics. Estimates are that Zaidis make up 45% of the population, and Sunni Shafa' 55%. A few thousand Ismaili Muslims reside in the north, as do some 400 Jews. About 3,000 Christians are scattered around the country.
In the fall of 2009, the Saudi air force intervened on the side of the Yemeni government, bombing Houthi regions and urging local Yemenis to flee. Saudi Arabia's involvement tends to add to Yemeni resentments, which, in Houthi regions, aid the Houthi clan in its war against the central government.
The Yemeni president says the rebellion is backed by Iran (a Shiite regime) in the same way that Iran backs Lebanon's Hezbollah organization: to destabilize the central government, establish a theocratic state, and to wage a proxy war against American interests. There are serious questions over the Yemeni president's claim. Ali Saleh frequently exaggerates threats to his regime in order to maximize foreign assistance and win cover for his repressive attacks on the northern and southern rebellions.
It is also unclear whether the Houthi rebellion is drawing support from al-Qaeda, though al-Qaeda is active in Yemen. The Houthi rebellion is unrelated to another violent front in Yemen--in the southern, former Marxist-socialist region that used to be the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, or South Yemen (North and South Yemen unified in 1990, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which used to sponsor South Yemen).
The Yemeni government and the Houthis have fought a half dozen rounds inconclusively. In 2007, Qatar brokered an 18-point peace plan, but neither side accepted it. Military analysts say the rebels are not strong enough to threaten the central government despite fighting that, in 2008, spilled from the northern mountains to the suburbs of Sanaa, the capital.
But the central government is too corrupt, and its military too disorganized, to get past an attrition war with the rebels. According to the Congressional Research Service, "The fundamental grievances that started the conflict in the first place were not resolved. Sa’da remains one of the poorest areas of Yemen, and experts believe the Al Houthi family seized upon the desperation of many of the province’s inhabitants to build a religiously-inspired insurgent movement capable of fighting guerrilla warfare in the region’s mountainous areas. The conflict, much of which has taken place in civilian areas, has witnessed atrocities on both sides, though some human rights groups have accused security forces of using disproportionate force to quell the rebellion, thereby further inflaming their opponents."
According to Human Rights Watch, some 130,000 Yemenis have been displaced by the fighting and aid agencies are prevented from providing relief. "Many agencies must ask separate Interior Ministry permission for each and every trip, an almost impossible operational requirement," Human Rights Watch concludes. "By the end of September 2008, the government allowed aid agencies access to a limited number of towns in Sa’da governorate, but well into October this expanded access was insufficient to reach many of those who have long gone without assistance and who remain at risk."
Battles between the government and the Houthi rebels in 2009 became so violent that analysts feared the conflict would become more regional. President Saleh’s government exacerbated the conflict's underlying momentum by refusing to rebuild Houthi areas or provide aid affter the fighting.