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Battle for Yemen desert city now a key to Iran, US excitement



DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – The struggle for an ancient desert city in war-torn Yemen has become a key to understanding broader tensions that are now inflaming the Middle East and the challenges facing President Joe Biden’s government in pushing US troops out in the region.

Fighting has erupted in the mountains outside Marib as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels occupying the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, try to seize the city, which is crucial to the country’s energy supply.

Saudi Arabia, which has led a military coalition since 201

5 in support of Sanaa’s government in exile, has launched airstrikes after airstrikes to blunt Houthi progress towards Marib. The Houthis have retaliated with drone and missile attacks deep inside Saudi Arabia, creating global oil markets.

The battle for Marib is likely to determine the outline of any political solution in Yemen’s second civil war since the 1990s. If the rebels are seized, the rebels can push for that advantage in the negotiations and even continue further south. If Marib is in the possession of Yemen’s internationally recognized government, it might save its only stronghold, as detachers challenge its authority elsewhere.

The fight also presses a pressure point against the most powerful of America’s Arab Gulf allies and anchors any American return to Iran’s nuclear deal. It even complicates the Biden administration’s efforts to slowly relocate its long-standing US military installations to the Middle East to counter what it sees as the new threat to China and Russia.

Losing Marib would be “the last bullet in the head of the internationally recognized government,” said Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. “It will set the stage for the dissolution of the Yemeni state. You are looking at a generation of instability and humanitarian crisis. You will also see a free theater for regional intervention. ”

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FORMER OASIS BECOMES WAR FRONT

Marib is located 120 kilometers east of Sanaa and sits on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula’s empty neighborhood desert at the foot of the Sarawat Mountains, which run along the Red Sea. It is believed to be the home of the biblical queen of Sheba, which gave King Solomon wealth of spices and gold. In the Qur’an, it was the site of massive flooding that followed the collapse of its ancient dam.

The catastrophe that is gripping the city today is completely man-made. More than 800,000 refugees fleeing the Houthi takeover of Sanaa in September 2014 and the ensuing war swelled the city’s population, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

To take Marib or otherwise cut it would represent a great price for the Houthis. It is home to oil and gas fields owned by international companies including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Total SA has interests. Marib’s natural gas bottling plant produces cooking gas for the nation of 29 million people. Its power plant once supplied 40% of Yemen’s electricity. The modern dam of Marib is an important source of fresh water for a desiccated nation, even though it was never fully developed even in peacetime.

When Saudi Arabia entered Yemen’s war in 2015 alongside its exiled government, the kingdom allied itself with the Marib tribes, who long perceived Sanaa and the Houthis as depriving them. Another important political power was Islah, a Sunni Islamist political party that is Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. These disparate forces provided a lifeline for Yemen’s militant government in exile, which is already facing pressure from Allied separatists in the south.

For a while, beginning in the fall of 2019, Saudi Arabia reached a sanctuary with the Houthis, said Ahmed Nagi, a non-resident Yemeni expert at the Carnegie Middle East Center. Referring to two Houthi officials familiar with the discussions, Nagi said a back-channel deal saw both the Saudis and the rebels refrain from attacking populated areas.

But then the Houthis started pushing back into Marib, the Saudis resumed a heavy bombing campaign.

For the Houthis, “they think they are winning through war more than peace talks,” Nagi said. For the Saudis: “If they lose Marib, they have zero cards on the negotiating table.”

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YEMEN GETS IN REGIONAL VISE

The escalating conflict over Marib coincides with major changes in U.S. policy toward the war. President Donald Trump’s administration had declared the Houthis a “foreign terrorist organization” following a campaign by Saudi Arabia that supported the movement.

Biden revoked the Houthi terror designation after entering the office. He also announced that the United States would suspend support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations in Yemen, saying, “This war must end.”

But the fighting around Marib has only escalated, even though the Saudis recently offered a ceasefire agreement. Iran’s frustration over the Biden administration’s lack of swift lifting of sanctions has contributed to “an intensification of attacks by groups in Iraq and the same in Yemen,” said Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, an Iranian scholar at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.

“Iran is trying to deliver a message to the United States,” Tabrizi said. “A message that the status quo is not sustainable.”

While experts discuss how much control Iran exercises over the Houthis, the rebels are increasingly launching bomb-laden drones that were previously linked to Tehran deep inside the kingdom. These attacks included a drone smashing into a parked commercial passenger plane and others targeted at major oil facilities, temporarily shake energy prices.

“Unfortunately, the US Government’s removal of the Houthis from the list (foreign terrorist organization) seems to have been misinterpreted by the Houthis,” the Saudi government said in a statement to the Associated Press. “This misreading of the measure has led them with the support of the Iranian regime to increase hostilities.”

Since the war began, the Houthis have launched over 550 bombed drones and more than 350 ballistic missiles against Saudi Arabia, the kingdom said. While it has caused injuries, injuries and at least one death, the war in Yemen has reportedly seen over 130,000 people killed. Saudi Arabia has been repeatedly criticized internationally for airstrikes that kill civilians and embargoes that exacerbate the hunger of a nation on the brink of famine.

And although Biden has withdrawn support, US-made aircraft and ammunition sold to Saudi Arabia are still targeted at Yemen. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has linked armaments of the kingdom to America so the war can take place.

“I am asking this question to the Americans: Did you know what would happen to the Saudis the day you gave them the green light to enter the Yemeni war?” Asked Khamenei in a speech on March 21. “Did you know you’re sending Saudi Arabia to a swamp?”

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US WEIGHS MIDEAST DEVELOPMENTS

Biden’s efforts to end US engagement in Yemen’s war come as his government seeks to re – enter Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers. Indirect talks began Tuesday in Vienna.

“Iranians are eager to exchange their Yemeni cards for something more durable,” said al-Iryani, a researcher at the Sanaa Center.

Such an agreement might suit American interests. Biden’s Ministry of Defense looks at redistribution of troops, especially those in the Middle East, in the midst of what experts refer to as the “great power conflict” America faces with China and Russia.

Withdrawing troops from the Middle East could strengthen forces that America may need elsewhere. However, it will probably be easier said than done.

In Yemen alone, every US president since George W. Bush has launched drone strikes on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which Washington has long considered the most dangerous offshoot of the militant group. Biden itself has not yet launched such a strike, although the group still operates in the eastern part of the country.

US troops remain in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, Arab Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia rely on US forces stationed in their countries as a counterweight to Iran.

The US military sent troops to Saudi Arabia in 2019, deployment of anti-missile batteries amid tensions with Iran. However, US forces have recently reduced this presence.

“The Kingdom believes that the US presence in the region can help promote the region’s security and stability by supporting allies facing transnational threats primarily sponsored by the Iranian regime,” the Saudi government said. It did not comment specifically on the restructuring.

Overall, U.S. forces will remain in the Middle East as it remains critical to global energy markets and includes major naval hubs for trade around the world, said Aaron Stein, research director at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. What these forces look like, however, will change when the United States weighs how to offset Iran through a return to the nuclear deal, he said.

“It does not solve the Iranian question,” Stein said. “It puts us in a position to cope, just as we are in hospice care.”

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Follow Jon Gambrell and Isabel DeBre on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP and www.twitter.com/isabeldebre.




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