SANAA // Iranian support for rebels seeking the establishment of Sharia across Yemen and semi-autonomy for some of its provinces has "greatly increased" in the past three months, officials for the quasi-Shiite militant group said yesterday,
The disclosure by officials for the Houthi insurgent group follows a report yesterday in the New York Times saying that Tehran has supplied the rebels with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and other arms, as well as several millions of dollars in cash.
The account, quoting US military and intelligence officials, says the transfers of weapons and money are part of an expanding Iranian effort to offset long-standing Saudi influence in Yemen and extend Tehran's influence across the Middle East. The Houthis have about 10,000 armed fighters.
Mohammed Abdul Salam, a Houthi spokesman, yesterday denied that rebels had received arms from Iran.
"We are in no need of Iranian weapons," he told The National. "The people of Yemen are supporting us. Our power is through them and not through Iran."
While rebutting claims that the rebels were being armed by Iran, however, other Houthi officials said Iran was providing logistical and political, as well as financial, assistance.
They refused to disclose the exact scope of the aid, which began in 2007, but they said it had "greatly increased" since December and was being funnelled through a "third party" they would not identify.
"Houthis will cooperate with Iran if its interests are in stake," explained a senior Houthi official by telephone from the Houthi stronghold of Sa'ada province.
Other rebels were more strident in their defence of Iranian help, saying it was justified by the current contest for influence in the Middle East between Shiite-led Iran and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia.
"Why is it OK for Sunni Islamist parties in Yemen to receive aid from Saudi Arabia and not for Houthis to receive financial and logistic aid from Iran?" an exasperated Houthi official asked.
The alleged increase in Iranian aid to the Houthis is likely to further complicate efforts by Yemen's new president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, to stabilise the country, kick-start its moribund economy and carry out a political transition that is to culminate in two years with a new constitution and democratic elections.
Mr Hadi last month replaced Yemen's longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, under a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Despite earlier indications that he would step out of the political spotlight, Mr Saleh indicated late Wednesday that he had no immediate plans for a quiet retirement.
He said in a statement that he would not leave Yemen unless he was joined by 10 of his rivals among the country's top military commanders, politicians and tribal leaders.
Mr Hadi has called on the Houthis to participate in the political transition and ensure a place in the negotiations aimed at mapping Yemen's political future.
Yesterday, the president's spokesman said that the Houthis would be asked to lay down their arms in exchange for a role in the transition.
"Houthis are a force in Yemen, and the government has given priority to reaching a political deal with the Houthis," Yahya Al Arasi said.
Rights groups say, however, that sentiment among the Houthis, a Zaidi Shiite movement that was formed in 1994 and picked up arms 10 years later, is running against compromise and instead drifting towards more sectarian conflict.
Representatives of one group, the Sanaa-based National Organisation for Defending Rights and Freedom (Hood), met with Houthi fighters in Sa'ada province on Wednesday.
According to testimony taken by Hood, Houthis are killing Sunnis using the slogan, "Cleansing the country of those loyal to the United States."
Mohammed Allawo, Hood's president, voiced concern about deepening Shiite-Sunni violence in Sa'ada province, which Houthis control, and the provinces of Mareb, Jawf and Amran, where they have a strong presence.
"Innocent people are being killed by the Houthis, and this is only the beginning," he said.