So who are the Houthis? Right now they control all of Yemen's major cities. They are also under attack by the Saudi air force and a coalition of Gulf states, reportedly with US assistance. How they swept to power is a study in Yemeni politics — and did not include, at least at first, the Sunni-Shiite split that world media has focused on.

The northern Yemeni movement known as the Houthis got its name from its founder, the late Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi. He was a Zaidi religious leader and former member of the Yemeni parliament. The Yemeni government killed him in 2004 in a police action. That event was followed by a string of Yemeni wars against the Houthis that ended in 2010.

But the Houthis were not defeated. Al-Houthi's son, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, built up a base of support in the north, and in 2011 led the fight for Houthi control of the northern Yemeni city, Sadaa. In 2012 the Houthis moved on to take another large city, Amran, in a campaign that took them southward to the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Many believe that the group's military successes were the consequence of an alliance with the powerful Yemeni politician who had fought six wars against them. Deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for three decades, is said to have used the burgeoning Houthi movement as a way to vanquish his own political enemies.

In the fall of 2014 the Houthis staged a slow-motion takeover of the Yemeni capital, first by staging massive public protests over Yemen's plans to raise the price of fuel, then by taking over government buildings. As in Sadaa and Amran, Yemeni troops stepped aside and yielded to the Houthis. In February, 2015, the Houthis took over the presidential palace and held the current president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, against his will. After President Hadi escaped to the southern city of Aden, the Houthis pursued him. President Hadi again escaped. 

Now the Houthis are under fire from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies who have declared their support for Hadi. Bombing has been reported at military installations under Houthi control.

It is important to note that this conflict began not as a Sunni-Shiite divison, but a battle between different Yemeni groups for turf, influence and power.  

But there are sectarian overtones. After all, the Houthis' slogan is 'God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.' And following the March 20 mosque attacks in Sanaa, the Houthi leader railed at the US and Israel for supporting the terrorists attacks, and also blamed regional Arab states for financing terrorist groups operating inside Yemen.

Now some of those Arab states — Saudi Arabia,  Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan and Sudan — have taken up arms against the Houthis, making real the threat the Houthis have long feared. And perhaps expected.

Related Stories