Bajil, Oct 4 (AP/UNB) — With American backing, the United Arab Emirates has resumed an all-out offensive aimed at capturing Yemen's most vital port, Hodeida, where Shiite rebels are digging in to fight to the last man. Thousands of civilians are caught in the middle, trapped by minefields and barrages of mortars and airstrikes.
If the array of Yemeni militias backed by the UAE takes the city, it would be their biggest victory against the rebels, known as Houthis, after a long stalemate in the three-year-old civil war.
But the battle on the Red Sea coast also threatens to throw Yemen into outright famine.
Hodeida's port literally keeps millions of starving Yemenis alive, as the entry point for 70 percent of food imports and international aid. More than 8 million of Yemen's nearly 29 million people have no food other than what is provided by world relief agencies, a figure that continues to rapidly rise.
A protracted siege could cut off that lifeline. The battle has already killed hundreds of civilians and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, adding to the more than 2 million Yemenis displaced by the war. Amid the fighting, cholera cases in the area leaped from 497 in June to 1,347 in August, Save the Children reported Tuesday.
The assault first began in June, then paused in August as the U.N. envoy for Yemen tried to cobble together peace talks, the first in two years. That attempt fell apart, and the offensive resumed in mid-September.
The United States effectively gave a green light to push ahead when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sept. 12 certified continued American support for the Saudi-led coalition's air campaign against the Houthis. The coalition has come under heavy criticism for its relentless airstrikes since 2015, which U.N. experts say have caused the majority of the estimated 10,000 civilian deaths in the conflict and could constitute a war crime. Several strikes in August killed dozens of children.
Pompeo declared that Saudi Arabia and the UAE were taking adequate measures to minimize civilian deaths. The U.S. supports the coalition with intelligence and air-to-air refueling for its warplanes, as well as with billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE — as well as the United States — say their campaign aims to restore the recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and thwart what they contend is an attempt by Iran to seize control in Yemen through the rebels. Iran denies that the Houthis are its proxy.
But the resulting war has pushed Yemen into the world's worst humanitarian disaster, fragmentation and chaos.
A coalition victory at Hodeida would be the first breakthrough after more than two years of deadlock.
After the Houthis took over the capital, Sanaa, and surged south in early 2015, the coalition launched its campaign, pushing them back. Since then, front lines have hardly moved, with the Houthis firmly in control of the north.
The notable exception has been on the Red Sea coast, where since December, UAE-backed forces have battled their way toward Hodeida.
The UAE says taking the port will force the Houthis to the negotiating table.
Hodeida's fall would cost the rebels a major source of income, since they heavily tax commodities and aid coming from the port. That cash has helped them finance their fight and the iron fist they wield in their territory.
But if the Houthis won't negotiate, the coalition faces an even tougher fight into the rebel-held north.
It took two years for the coalition to reach Hodeida, so "how many months or years will it take for this same collection of — often competing and opposed — militias to make their way through Yemen's mountains toward the capital of Sanaa?" said Michael Horton, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.
The two sides have pounded each other for months, as some 22,000 UAE-backed Yemeni fighters inch across the flat coastal plain to the city's edges. The force is mainly made up of militiamen from the south or the Hodeida area, backed by tanks and coalition warplanes. They face an estimated 5,000 Houthi fighters.
The coalition fighters are currently trying to encircle the city. But they have hit ferocious resistance at Kilo 16, a point on the main highway heading east from Hodeida to Sanaa. Despite two weeks of fighting, the forces have failed to fully capture it.
The fighting has partially shut the highway, which is not only a key Houthi supply line but also vital for importers and humanitarian agencies moving goods.
Every piece of ground has been gained only with heavy bloodshed. One military official estimated 1,300 fighters killed from the two sides in just the past few weeks. The defending Houthis, working in small units to avoid airstrikes, attack from hiding in foliage. Haydari al-Subaihi, a coalition-backed fighter, recounted how 30 of his comrades were killed at once when a mortar shell hit their position.
Coalition airstrikes also reap a heavy toll.
"We find vast lands littered with the bodies of the Houthis, many charred from airstrikes," said Mansour al-Lahji, another Emirati-backed militiaman.
"THE WORLD TOPPLED ON OUR HEADS"
Thousands of civilians have been caught in the middle, unable to escape their homes because of heavy bombardment by both sides and the Houthis' minefields.
In Durayhimi, just south of Hodeida city, around 20,000 people remain trapped. Food, fuel and water have run short, and aid agencies cannot reach them, a health official who fled the district said.
Houthis in the district have buried dead fighters and civilians in mass graves, the official said. "When one grave is full, they dig another," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Saadia Ibrahim, a grandmother in her 60s, said that as her family fled their village, a Houthi mortar hit near their home, killing three of her relatives. As they drove off, another explosion — she doesn't know what it was — blasted the car, killing four more and throwing her through the air. Wounded by shrapnel, she was rescued by one of her sons on a motorcycle and taken to Bajil, a nearby town crowded with families fleeing the fighting.
"We fled right and left, and then the world toppled on our heads," she said.
The fighting has displaced half a million of the 2.6 million people living in the province where Hodeida is located. Documented civilian deaths in Hodeida spiked to an average 116 a month in June, July and August, up from 44 a month in the first five months of the year, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a monitoring group cited by U.N. agencies.
The actual toll is likely far higher.
Hodeida port has so far kept operating. The UAE has said it will work to ensure the port stays open, preparing airdrops of food if necessary.
Coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki told the AP that once the city is captured, the coalition will ease restrictions on ships entering the port, which now face long delays as a U.N. team inspects them to prevent weapon transfers to the Houthis. Port revenues will go to the government, allowing it to pay salaries of its employees, he said.
More and more Yemenis are starving simply because they can't afford to buy food in an economy that has been demolished by fighting, airstrikes and a coalition blockade. With the currency in freefall, the U.N. has warned that soon another 3.5 million people will need international aid.
Hodeida's fighting has endangered the lifeline. The battle at Kilo 16 forced aid supplies to take longer routes out, slowing deliveries. Also, aid agencies can't reach the nearby Red Sea Mills, one of Yemen's largest granaries, where enough grain to feed 3.5 million people for a month is stored.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
The battle brings in to sharp relief a question hanging over the war: What will be the shape of Yemen after all the destruction it has wreaked?
Notably absent from the fight to take Hodeida are the forces of Hadi's government — the government that the coalition says it aims to restore. Several pro-Hadi officials told the AP that the UAE squeezed him out.
"The government knows nothing about what is going on in Hodeida," one senior official said. "It's all in the hands of the Emiratis." He and the other officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities of relations with the Emirates.
Mistrust runs deep between Hadi's government and the UAE, which has set up military bases across southern Yemen and controls much of the south through the militias it funds. Some Hadi allies accuse the UAE of seeking to impose its own dominion over Yemen — and see the assault on Hodeida as adding another piece to its hold over the country's coastline.
Houthi-free southern Yemen has turned into a patchwork of splintered regions under rival militias. Aden, the southern capital, has seen assassinations and street battles between pro-UAE and pro-Hadi militias, as well as increasing crime, robbery and rape.
The fragmentation has sent a message to Yemenis living under the Houthis' repressive rule that the alternative may not be much better.
"Many Yemenis resent what they see as a neo-colonial land and resource grab," said Horton. "Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have carved out spheres of influence."
Dubai, Oct 3 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump says Saudi Arabia's king "might not be there for two weeks" without U.S. military support, as he sought to pressure the close American ally over rising oil prices.
Speaking at a campaign rally Tuesday night in Mississippi, Trump said: "I love the king, King Salman, but I said, 'King, we're protecting you. You might not be there for two weeks without us. You have to pay for your military, you have to pay.'"
Trump didn't elaborate on when he spoke to the king. Trump and King Salman last shared a reported telephone call on Saturday.
Benchmark Brent crude oil is near $85 a barrel — a four-year high — and analysts say it could reach $100. U.S. gasoline prices are up ahead of November midterm elections.
Baghdad, Oct 3 (AP/UNB) — Iraq's new president has tasked veteran Shiite politician Adel Abdul-Mahdi with forming a new government nearly five months after national elections were held, state TV reported late Tuesday.
Abdul-Mahdi is an independent who previously served as vice president, oil minister and finance minister. He is not allied with either of the two Shiite-led blocs that each claim to have the most support after May's elections, in which no party won an outright majority. He was previously a member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a large Shiite party with close ties to Iran.
He was tasked with forming a new government by Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician who was elected to the largely ceremonial role of president in a parliamentary vote earlier Tuesday.
Under an unofficial agreement dating back to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraq's presidency — a largely ceremonial role — is held by a Kurd, while the prime minister is Shiite and the parliament speaker is Sunni.
The prime minister-designate will have 30 days to submit his cabinet to parliament. Iraq held elections May 12.
State TV said Salih, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, won 220 votes out of the 273 lawmakers who attended Tuesday's session. He was among 20 candidates for the post, including one from the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party. The two parties have dominated Kurdish politics for decades.
Shiite lawmaker Hamid al-Moussawi said the lawmakers were supposed to vote Monday, but delayed the session for nearly 24 hours after the KDP and the PUK were unable to agree on a candidate. The parliament speaker eventually decided to hold a vote among all 20 nominees.
The KDP's nominee was Fuad Hussein, who served as chief of staff for the former Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani.
Born in 1960 in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah, Salih joined the PUK in 1976 and later worked in its foreign relations department in London. He studied at Cardiff University and the University of Liverpool.
He held various posts in the Iraqi government after the 2003 invasion, including planning minister and deputy prime minister, and from 2009 to 2011 he served as prime minister of the Kurdish region.
Last year, he broke away from PUK following the death of the party's founder, Jalal Talabani, a former Iraqi president. Salih formed an opposition party, but returned to the PUK to be its nominee for president.
Two Shiite-led blocs have emerged since the May elections, both of which claim to have the most seats and therefore the right to form a government. One is led by the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and includes supporters of the populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers won the most votes in the election. The other bloc includes state-sanctioned militias, many of which are backed by Iran, as well as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The various political factions had been mired in negotiations and horse-trading for months.
Dubai, Oct 3 (AP/UNB) — The Washington Post says it is concerned for the safety of a Saudi columnist for the newspaper who apparently went missing after going to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
The Post issued a statement early Wednesday saying it has been unable to reach Jamal Khashoggi, who has been critical of Saudi Arabia's assertive Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's rise to power. Khashoggi has been living in a self-imposed exile in the U.S.
Eli Lopez, the Post's international opinions editor, said: "It would be unfair and outrageous if he has been detained for his work as a journalist and commentator."
Saudi officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
Since Prince Mohammed's rise, the kingdom has arrested activists and businessmen in an apparent crackdown on dissent.
Gaza City, Sept 29 (AP/UNB) — Israeli troops killed seven Palestinians, two of them children, and wounded dozens more, Palestinian health officials said, in the deadliest day in recent weeks as Gaza's Hamas rulers stepped up protests along the border fence.
Thousands of Palestinians gathered Friday at five locations along Gaza Strip's frontier with Israel in response to calls by Hamas, the militant group that has controlled Gaza since seizing it from the Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Two of the dead were children, aged 12 and 14, the Gaza Health Ministry said, adding that all the dead had gunshot wounds. At least 90 other protesters were wounded by live fire, officials said.
Hamas has led weekly protests since March, but accelerated them in recent weeks to near daily events, pressing in large part for an end to a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after Hamas's violent takeover of Gaza in 2007. Hamas ousted forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in an armed coup.
At the fence, protesters burned dozens of tires, using the thick black smoke as a screen to throw rocks and explosives toward Israeli troops stationed on the opposite side of the fence. The soldiers responded with tear gas and gunfire.
The Israeli military said in a statement that in response to "grenades and explosive devices" hurled at troops during the protests, Israeli aircraft carried out two airstrikes on Hamas militant positions in the Gaza Strip. There were no Israeli casualties reported in Friday's clashes.
Hamas has led and organized the protests, but turnout has also been driven by growing despair over blockade-linked hardship, including lengthy power cuts and soaring unemployment.
Israeli troops have killed at least 143 Palestinians since protests began in late March, and a Palestinian sniper killed an Israeli soldier in August.
Israel argues it's defending its border and accuses Hamas of using the protests as a screen for attempts to breach the border fence to attack civilians and soldiers. Human rights groups have accused Israeli troops of excessive and unlawful use of force against unarmed protesters.
Hamas and Israel came to the brink of serious conflict this summer as violence escalated along the border. The two sides attempted to reach an agreement through indirect talks mediated by the United Nations and Egypt to ease tensions in exchange for lifting some restrictions on the economically crippled enclave. But those negotiations have stalled in recent weeks.
Earlier this week, a Hamas official, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the movement would escalate its border protests after the talks failed. He accused Abbas, who governs parts of the West Bank, of disrupting the negotiations.
Hamas vowed to continue the marches until the blockade is lifted. It also promised to accelerate protests after Abbas, speaking at the U.N. on Thursday, threatened more measures to force Hamas into surrendering power.
Abbas slashed funding to Gaza and cut salaries of Palestinian Authority employees there to pressure Hamas, making it increasingly difficult for it to govern. Hamas fears Abbas may further reduce funding to health care and other services for Gazans provided by the Palestinian Authority.