SANAA: Armed groups have led the slide into chaos in Yemen, where a truce between Arab-backed loyalists and Iran-backed rebels is expected to enter into force at midnight (2100 GMT) Sunday.
Shiite militiamen and Sunni extremists have sought to exploit a power vacuum since 2011 nationwide protests forced veteran president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.
The Huthi militiamen, also known as Ansarullah (Supporters of God), have long complained of marginalization.
They hail from the Zaidi sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that accounts for around one third of Yemen’s population.
Their strongholds lie in northern provinces bordering Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia, which leads the Arab coalition against them.
Badreddin al-Huthi, who formed the “Faithful Youth” political movement in 1992 to fight discrimination, is regarded as their spiritual leader.
His son Hussein led a months-long uprising in Saada province before the army killed him in 2004.
Hussein’s brother Abdulmalik now leads Ansarullah.
They fought six wars with the central government between 2004 and 2010 that killed thousands.
The Huthis seized Sanaa on September 21, 2014 after months of clashes with fighters loyal to the Sunni Islamist party Al-Islah.
They are accused of receiving support from Shiite Iran.
In March 2015, they advanced on second city Aden, where internationally backed President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi took refuge after escaping house arrest in the capital.
But the Saudi-led coalition helped pro-Hadi forces push the rebels out of Aden in July, as well as four other provinces.
Troops loyal to Saleh, who leads the influential General People’s Congress (GPC) party, allied with the Huthis helping them gain territory.
Loyalists and allies
Yemen’s military has been severely weakened due to mass defections of troops joining pro-Saleh forces.
They showed little or no resistance as the rebels seized Sanaa and expanded across the country.
But on March 26 last year, the Saudi-led coalition launched a military campaign in support of Hadi, deploying thousands of troops and providing heavy weaponry.
The United Arab Emirates plays a key role in the coalition, which also comprises Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Qatar and Sudan.
Hadi loyalists have been boosted by the Popular Resistance alliance of southern separatists and tribesmen.
The separatists have long called for the secession of the formerly independent South Yemen. But they have taken up arms alongside Hadi’s loyalists after the rebels advanced on their regions.
Pro-government forces have gained the upper hand in the south and Marib, east of Sanaa, thanks to strong support by the coalition.
Hadi has ordered merging them with the security forces.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is regarded by the United States as the extremist network’s deadliest branch.
It was formed in 2009 when Al-Qaeda in Yemen — behind the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbour that killed 17 American sailors — merged with its Saudi counterpart.
AQAP has strongholds in the south and southeast, and has repeatedly attacked security forces and been targeted by scores of US drone strikes.
It abducted foreigners and claimed responsibility for the deadly January 7, 2015 attack in Paris on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, targeted for its cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
With state institutions weakened, AQAP emerged as a force capable of resisting the advance of Ansarullah.
Sunni tribes, hostile to a Huthi advance into their provinces, teamed up with Al-Qaeda against the militia.
But since March, loyalists have gone on the offensive against the jihadists in Aden and the coalition has carried out a series of air strikes against AQAP in cities it has seized.
In addition, AQAP appears to have lost ground to the Islamic State group.
Islamic State group
An emerging force in Yemen, IS has claimed several deadly attacks against Huthis but has more recently targeted loyalist militia and government officials.
The group first surfaced in Yemen in March last year, claiming multiple suicide bombings that targeted two mosques in Sanaa attended by Huthis, killing 142 people and wounding more than 350.
Authorities blamed IS for an attack last month on the refuge for the elderly operated by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Aden where gunmen killed 16 employees. AFP