The Shiite insurgents who have toppled Yemen’s government are threatening to take over a key oil-producing province to the east of the capital, triggering fears that the country could explode in all-out civil war.
The rebels, known as Houthis, have already seized much of the north of the country with relative ease. But they are likely to encounter stiff resistance if they move into Marib province. Already, the largely Sunni tribes in the region are arming themselves with everything from tanks to rocket-propelled grenades, according to tribal leaders, and the governor has ringed the area with tribal fighters and military units.
“It will be civil war if they come here,” said Mohammed al-Wills, a leader of the Murad tribe in Marib, who has begun coordinating with fellow tribesmen and soldiers to defend the province.
The Houthis say they want to protect residents of Marib from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whose fighters have launched periodic attacks in the province. But diplomats and analysts say a conflict could wind up strengthening Yemen’s franchise of al-Qaeda, which has targeted the United States in high-profile attacks. A battle could also draw in tribesmen and Sunni fighters from other provinces.