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Houthi Rebels In Yemen Advance On Saudi Stronghold Of Marib

NOEL KING, HOST:

Now we have a look at the city of Marib in Yemen. It is a place that illustrates just how difficult it is to pursue a peace deal in that country.

Here's NPR's Ruth Sherlock.

HAMAS AL MUSLIMI: (Speaking Arabic).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hamas al Muslimi is a first-year medical student in the city of Marib in northern Yemen. When we reach her by phone, she tells us, in recent years this was one of the safest places to be.

AL MUSLIMI: (Through interpreter) My friends and I could go out, enjoy places, go to parks, walk around together.

SHERLOCK: These days, though, the people of Marib are terrified. Yemen's Houthi rebels are advancing on the city, and the front line is now just a few miles away.

AL MUSLIMI: (Through interpreter) We hear the war. Houthi drones fly over us, and more than once they've hit inside the city and in residential neighborhoods. Women and children have died.

SHERLOCK: A little background on the war - the Houthis captured Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in 2015. Saudi Arabia then intervened militarily because it was an ally of that government. And the Houthis were backed by Saudi's regional rival Iran. The U.S. supported Saudi's efforts with equipment and intelligence. Marib remained under government control. The Saudis poured money into the city, and it became a hub for their operations. Refugees took shelter there. The province even built a new soccer stadium and university.

Now Mahdi Mohammed, a resident of Marib who works for the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies think tank, says the fact that the Houthis now threaten the city shows just how badly the U.S.-backed Saudi intervention in Yemen has gone.

MAHDI MOHAMMED: (Through interpreter) Of course, Saudi has failed. The Houthis now control even more of Yemen, and they have the upper hand. They now have drones that they use to attack inside Saudi Arabia.

SHERLOCK: Some of those attacks are said to be with Iranian-made weapons. Saudi Arabia says this highlights why it's important for it to be in the war in Yemen, trying to keep an Iranian-backed group off its border.

But Peter Salisbury, a senior Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, says, if anything, the Saudi intervention in the war has only deepened Iran's involvement with the Houthis in Yemen.

PETER SALISBURY: Because they've been so successful, the Houthis are a much more attractive proposition to Iran now than they were even six years ago.

SHERLOCK: Salisbury says Saudi Arabia failed to unite an effective coalition against the Houthis.

SALISBURY: It's the Houthis against this really fragmented, complex group of local actors who have kind of the imprimatur of the government on them.

SHERLOCK: He says, though, that the Houthis will still have trouble taking Marib. Many of those defending the area are men from local tribes who reject the Houthis' politics and different religious beliefs.

SALISBURY: This is going to be a long and really messy fight.

SHERLOCK: He says, for the Houthis, even just keeping up the fight for Marib is a victory. It demoralizes the Saudi-backed factions and puts the Houthis in a stronger negotiating position for peace talks. President Biden has promised to use diplomacy to end the war in Yemen. But the battle for Marib may still have a long way to go.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "GLASS AND STONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.