(MENAFN - Arab News) The Iran-backed Houthi movement's increasing strength throughout Yemen is triggering concerns among the country's majority population.
The Houthi movement, based in the northern governorate of Sa'adah, was founded in the mid-90s by the late Hussein Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi, who had studied in Tehran.
The Houthi insurgents have endured six devastating wars against the Yemeni government, the latest of which was in 2009. Many Houthi leaders were killed during the battles, including the group's founder while Yemeni troops were trying to arrest him in 2004.
When the successful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011 set off massive protests against the former regimes, the Houthis took advantage of the unrest. They seized control of the entire Sa'adah province and started to expand into neighboring provinces. The Iran-backed group supported and effectively participated in the massive protests that overthrew Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Mabkout Nahshal, a tribal chief from the neighboring Hajjah province, confirmed to The Media Line that Houthi followers are "now in total control of Sa'adah, the majority of (the adjacent) Al-Jawf governorate, around 40 percent of Hajjah and swaths of land in Amran province."
Reflecting their expansion nationwide, posters of the Houthis can be seen everywhere in many Yemeni provinces, including the capital, Sanaa; they are on walls, at main intersections, at the entrances to markets, on shops' gates.
Abdusalam Mohammed, chairman of Abaad Studies and Research Center, told The Media Line that though the militant group might not currently pose a serious threat to the US, it could present a grave danger in the future.
The Houthi movement has signed agreements and formed alliances with some Yemeni political groups, including the Southern Movement. This underscores concerns that Iran seeks to consolidate its regional presence through its Yemeni allies, he said.
Both the Southern Movement, a militant group calling for independence for south Yemen, and the Houthis are said to be backed by Tehran. The two groups recently signed a cooperation agreement.
"Iran is seeking to control the strategic Bab El-Mandeb Strait connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden through its allies in the country," Mohammed said.
"In light of the current events shaking its biggest regional ally, Syria, Iran is looking to minimize its losses and to maintain its regional role by creating new alliances in the region. Also, after United Arab Emirates (UAE) vessels managed in the past few years to bypass the Strait of Hormuz, Tehran has started to think of a more effective way to hold control over the regional maritime lanes."
Iran has repeatedly warned the US that it would close the Strait of Hormuz if its nuclear facilities were subjected to any attack.
"If Tehran somehow manages to control both strategic straits, Iran's capability to prevent the world from obtaining oil will be scarier," he cautioned.
Analyst Hassan Al-Haifi told The Media Line that American drones and other intelligence vehicles and equipment are currently being used to monitor the movement of Houthis in Sa'adah.
Ali Al-Amad, a high-ranking leader in the Houthi Movement, dismissed the notion that Iran is seeking to control the Bab El-Mandeb Strait as a baseless allegation.
He told The Media Line that the Houthi faction and Southern Movement signed agreements because his group - unlike the other political entities - did not stand behind the former regime when it waged war against south Yemen in 1994.
Al-Haifi shared Al-Amad's thinking and added: "It is natural that such common disillusionment and disappointment from such an extremely oppressive regime to come to common grounds for waging their struggle toward liberty and justice."
Speaking about Houthis' expansion in the country, Al-Amad said that what has been perceived as an expansion is actually an increase in the amount of freedom of expression granted to Yemenis, a view disputed by many.
"The revolution against the former regime has boosted the freedom of expression in Yemen. Hence, many people started voicing their views freely, something they were not able to do during Saleh's rule," he said.
However, he admitted that his group has recently been able to garner many supporters and gain more popularity, attributing that to their "steadfast positions supporting Yemeni interests and to our refusal to compromise the revolution's goals."
Abdusalam Mohammed believes that the upcoming national dialogue conference to be held in mid-November represents the best way for the government to reach agreements with the rebellious groups, including the Houthis.
The conference is a part of the US-backed proposal that saw the former president peacefully relinquish power to his long-time deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Mohammed concluded: "If the Houthis refuse to renounce violence and hand over areas under their control in the national dialogue, then the government will have to use force to regain control of the areas seized by the Houthis."