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Houthis deny U.S., Saudi claim that they are Iran’s puppets

In the streets of Yemen’s capital Sana’a, chants of “Death to America” are loud and clear. Houthi rebels, tied to Iran, seized the city and much of the north in 2014, causing Saudi Arabia to form a coalition, backed by the U.S., to defeat them. The war has brought the country to its knees and driven bitter resentment, but hasn't pushed the Houthis back. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    This week, we brought you a rare, disturbing, and important look at the desperate situation behind rebel lines in Yemen.

    But just who are those Houthi rebels, and how closely aligned are they to Iran? It is that question that has driven American involvement in the war, supporting a Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson smuggled herself across the front lines in Yemen.

    And here, in the third and final report of the series, we look at these important questions behind the world's worst current humanitarian disaster.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    In the streets of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, chants of "Death to America" are loud and clear. The anger here runs deep.

    These rebels, known as Houthis, seized control of Sanaa City and much of the north of the country in 2014. They are of Yemen's Zaydi sect and closest to Shia Islam. Their growing power caused alarm across the border in Sunni Saudi Arabia, so the Saudis formed a coalition of Arab countries to defeat them, a coalition backed by the United States.

    Over the last three years, a campaign of intensive airstrikes and a ground war has brought the country to its knees, but hasn't pushed back the Houthis. America's help with that campaign has driven bitter resentment here.

  • ISSAM AL DALAMY:

    The weapons, they come from the United States. Mr. Obama or the other presidents said, OK, we will help Saudi Arabia for the war in Sanaa. And the new one, Trump, he said, we will support our friend. What does it mean? He is supporting them to kill us.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    The U.S. sells the Saudis and their coalition partners billions of dollars worth of bombs and provides intelligence and logistical support.

    Saudi jets are refueled midair by American planes between bombing missions. The Saudis and the United States say the Houthis are puppets for Tehran, a proxy form of Iranian military power right on Saudi Arabia's doorstep.

    The Houthi supporters fervently deny this.

    The Saudis and the Americans say, Iran is here.

  • ISSAM AL DALAMY:

    Yes.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Is this true?

  • ISSAM AL DALAMY:

    It's not true. Where is Iran? He is Yemeni. He is Yemeni. All of us Yemeni. Where is Iran? Iran is a country. Let them to go to Iran and start fight with Iran. Here, Yemen.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Politically, the Houthis most closely aligned reflect with Iran's proxy force in Lebanon, Hezbollah, and share an intense hatred for Israel.

    The group denies any formal partnership. Since taking control of the capital, Sanaa, their extremist slogan can been seen everywhere, including here on the ancient walls of the old city: "God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews."

    Hatred of Saudi Arabia also bonds the Houthis to Iran. The Houthis regularly fire long-range ballistic missiles across Saudi Arabia's southern border and towards the capital. The Saudis say those are provided by Iran and have imposed a tight blockade on all sea and air surrounding Houthi-controlled areas to prevent missiles from coming in.

    The Houthis told the NewsHour they took the missiles from Yemen's military arsenal when they captured Sanaa.

    Salim Moghalis is a member of the Houthis' political wing.

  • SALIM MOGHALIS (through interpreter):

    The Yemeni people and army have missiles from the past. And the army and experts were able to improve and upgrade these missiles, which is necessary. We are able to produce all sorts of arms, so they can upgrade the old weapons to have longer ranges.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Beyond the politics, this war has created the world's worst humanitarian disaster. Millions are on the brink of starvation, and the worst cholera outbreak in modern history rages on.

    After three years of war, people here are weary of the airstrikes and the blockade, but they also tell us they believe America could end it. In Sanaa's market, people are hopeful for an end to the crisis soon.

  • ABU MOHAMMED (through interpreter):

    Since America has the biggest position in the U.N., it should have pushed for political and economic resolutions to the conflict. Look, now the people are almost dead. Poverty, hunger, disease, death, injuries, and on top of all that, the warplanes are hitting us.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Meanwhile, efforts by some to end the U.S.' support for the Saudis continue. A bipartisan group of senators, including Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, failed to get a resolution passed in March which aimed to limit the White House's authority to get involved in this war.

  • SEN. BERNIE SANDERS:

    We think that, in fact, this war is an authorized, and it is in fact unconstitutional. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution is pretty clear. It's the United States Congress that declares war. The president cannot do what he wants unilaterally. The president doesn't have the authority.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    President Trump enjoys warm relations with the Saudis, especially the country's powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The White House is currently pushing for further arms sales of precision-guided missiles to the kingdom.

    Some fellow Republicans argue the Saudis deserve America's support in this war. Idaho Republican James Risch sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

  • SEN. JAMES RISCH:

    The Iranians are in there and they are causing the difficulty that's there. If the Iranians would back off, I have no doubt that the Saudis will back off. But the Saudis have the absolute right to defend themselves.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    To others, it's not America's job to defend a nation that doesn't reflect its values.

  • SEN. BERNIE SANDERS:

    I don't know that I have ever participated in a vote which says that the United States must be an ally to Saudi's militaristic ambitions. This is a despotic regime which treats women as third-class citizens. There are no elections there. They have their own goals and their own ambitions.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    American support for Saudi Arabia is a major propaganda tool for the Houthis, who frame their war here as a form of jihad against the U.S., a religious battle.

    But it's a battle that neither side is winning, regardless of who America helps. Instead, the conflict is defined most clearly by those who are losing, the civilians, struggling to live with its consequences.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jane Ferguson in Sanaa, Yemen.

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