BAGHDAD // The Houthis, a branch of Shia Islam fighting a rebellion in Yemen, do not have political offices in Iraq and have no plans to set them up, according to a leading Houthi scholar based in Najaf. Claims that Iraqi Shiites were backing the Yemeni rebels developed into a diplomatic incident earlier this month after Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, said the group received backing from inside Iraq and Iran.
Sheikh Ali Mohammad al Yamani Aharzai, a leading Houthi religious cleric living in Najaf, a major centre for Shia Islam in southern Iraq, denied claims the Houthis in Iraq were rallying support for the ongoing war. "There is no office for the Houthi group and if we talk about the situation in Yemen, we do so as individual citizens living in Iraq," he said in a telephone interview. "We appeal to the Yemeni government to stop military operations immediately, to return to the negotiating table and to apply the law and the constitution.
"What has happened in Sa'ada [a province in northern Yemen] is an explicit and unequivocal violation of the constitution." Houthi rebels have been fighting against Yemeni government forces in Sa'ada on and off since 2004, but the government launched an all-out assault on August 11 and in recent weeks jets have bombed Houthi areas of Sa'ada city. The United Nations has warned of a humanitarian disaster, with up to 100,000 people expected to flee the northern region to escape the rising violence.
The rebels say they are the victims of religious discrimination by dictatorial central authorities. Northern Yemen is dominated by followers of the Zaidi doctrine, while the south is mainly Sunni. The conflict has troubling international dimensions, with fears it has become a battlefield in a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. North Yemen has a long land border with Saudi, a country that has expressed fears about the growing power of Shia Islam in the region.
While the Yemeni authorities have accused Iran and Iraqi Shia factions of supporting the rebels, the leader of the Houthis' armed faction in Yemen said the Saudi air force had taken part in attacks on the group and that Sunni extremists had been deployed to fight alongside government forces. Iraq also appears in danger of getting sucked into the war, at least politically. Hamam Hamoudi, the head of the Iraqi parliament's foreign relations committee, said the Yemeni government was sheltering wanted members of the Iraqi Baath Party, which is still fighting against the Baghdad authorities. He suggested allowing the Houthis to establish offices in Iraq in retaliation.
Parliamentary officials were quick to point out that Mr Hamoudi's comments were his opinion and neither Iraqi government policy or representative of parliament's views. Iraq's Sadrist bloc, the movement accused of supporting the Houthis, also divorced itself from the conflict and has denied aiding the insurgents. Mr Aharzai, the Houthi scholar who has been based in Najaf for almost a decade, similarly distanced himself and Iraq's Shia institutions from involvement in the war. He and other Houthi colleagues suspected of political activity were only in Iraq to study at its renowned Hawza, or Shia religious establishments, he said.
Students from across the world study in Najaf, home to some of Shia Islam's holiest sites and libraries containing ancient religious texts. "The Hawza in Najaf do not interfere in the affairs of other countries," Mr Aharzai said. Baghdad's mainstream political parties have not supported calls to set up a Houthi office in Iraq, despite the widespread belief that Yemen is now home to former regime loyalists responsible for crimes inside Iraq.
"Most of us reject the idea of a Houthi office here," said Salim Abdullah of the Iraqi Accord Front. "It would generate negative reactions from the neighbouring Arab countries at a time when we are trying to get rid of the armed groups and restore security and stability. "The conflict between the Houthis and Yemeni government forces is internal and not a matter for Iraq. We do not need to bring ourselves extra problems."