Costly and critical: the battle for a key Yemeni city

MARIB CITY, Yemen — The two fighters stand shoulder-to-shoulder on a mountain overlook, with a clear view below of the enemy’s position. They are part of the last lines of defense between the government’s last stronghold in Yemen’s north, and the Houthi rebels trying to take it.

Hassan Saleh and his younger brother Saeed, both in their early 20s, have been fighting alongside other government fighters and tribesman outside the oil-rich city of Marib, against the months-long offensive by the Iranian-backed rebels. They say they need more weapons to push the attackers back.

“We need sniper rifles,” said Hassan, who was taking a position in a sandbagged trench in the mountainous Kassara region. All that most battalions have are old Kalashnikovs and machine guns mounted on the rear of pickup trucks.

This is the most active frontline in Yemen’s nearly 7-year-old civil war, where a steady stream of fighters on both sides are killed or wounded every day, even as international pressure to end the war intensifies. Amid another round of peace talks, this time led by Oman, the desert city of Marib remains the crucible of one of the world’s most bogged-down conflicts.

The Houthis have for years attempted to take Marib to complete their control over the northern half of Yemen. But since February, they have waged an intensified offensive from multiple fronts, while hitting the residential city center with missiles and explosive-laden drones, killing and wounding dozens of civilians.

So far, the rebels have made only incremental progress, inching slowly across the desert plain, because of Saudi airstrikes that wreak heavy casualties in their ranks. Government and medical officials in Marib estimate that thousands of fighters have been killed or wounded, mostly rebels, since February. In the Houthi-held capital, Sanaa, mass funerals and death announcements of soldiers, some of them children, indicate how costly the battle has been, though Houthis do not release official death tolls.

The grueling battle over the remote city seems intertwined with the sluggish efforts for peace. The Houthis appear to hope capturing Marib will give them the upper hand in talks. Meanwhile government officials complain that American and international wariness at fueling the interminable war prevents them from getting weapons they need to win in Marib.

The U.S. is pressuring the Saudi-led coalition that backs the government not to provide more weapons for fear they could fall into militants’ hands amid worries over government “graft and incompetence,” a Yemeni official told the Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

“We are at a crossroads,” said Marib’s provincial governor Sheikh Sultan al-Aradah, arguing the weapons are needed to tip the scales at Marib. “The world has some reservations about arming Yemen in the current time.”

An AP crew travelled in recent weeks to the city through Saudi Arabia on a government-organized trip.

Marib, some 115 kilometers (70 miles) east of Sanaa on the edge of Yemen’s large deserts, is a strategic gateway from the central highlands to southern and eastern provinces. It’s also home to oil and gas fields where international firms including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Total SA have interests. Its natural gas bottling plant produces cooking gas for the nation of 29 million people. Its power plant once provided 40% of Yemen’s electricity.

Its relative stability in past years made it a haven for those fleeing the war’s other fronts. The area, which had a pre-war population of 400,000, now also hosts some 2.2 million displaced people, many of them crowded into camps, according to official statistics.

The city’s streets are bustling during the day with taxis and 4×4 vehicles belonging to security forces. At night, men frequent restaurants and cafes or gather in homes, chewing leaves of qat for a stimulant effect. There’s little heed paid to the fighting just outside their city.

But the posters of fallen commanders and troops lining the roadways serve as a reminder. The city’s cemetery has been expanded to absorb the surge in fatalities.

“We bury between 10 to 15 people every day, mostly martyrs in the war,” said Mohammed Saeed Nasser, a guard at the cemetery.

The main hospital in Marib has been overwhelmed by dozens of wounded fighters a day for months, said its director, Dr. Mohamed Abdo al-Qubati. At an intensive care unit, there were 10 patients, all but one injured fighters.

In one of the beds, Ali Saad, 22, lay partially paralyzed. He was shot by a Houthi sniper on the frontline on June 18.

Saad has been fighting in government forces since 2017. During that time, he and his family fled their home in southwestern Dhamar province as the war escalated. Later, he was captured and held for a year in a Houthi prison until he was released in an October prisoner exchange.

“I suffered a lot in captivity, I was tortured physically and mentally,” he said. “This gave us a glimpse into what Houthis were really like. We came out with a stronger and indescribable will to fight them.” His father and one of his three brothers were also wounded on the Marib front earlier this year.

Yemen’s civil war began in 2014 when the Houthis seized Sanaa and much of the north, forcing the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee.

The Saudi-led coalition, backed at the time by the U.S., entered the war to try restoring Hadi to power. Amid the relentless air campaign and ground fighting, the war has killed more than 130,000 people and spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It has also created smaller, parallel conflicts, between militants and different factions inside the country.

After years of criticism over civilian casualties from airstrikes, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration in February withdrew its backing for the coalition’s campaign in Yemen.

Yemeni government and military officials say that decision, along with Biden’s removal of the Houthis from a U.S. terrorism list, emboldened the rebels in Marib.

“The Houthis appear to calculate that if they win in Marib, they will have won the war for the north of Yemen while humiliating the internationally recognized president,” said Peter Salisbury, Yemen expert at the International Crisis Group. “That is a considerable prize for their side, as it would also allow them to dictate terms for an end to the war.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday that the administration was “beyond fed up” with the Houthis and “horrified by the repeated attacks on Marib.” He denounced the rebels for continuing the offensive despite a “serious (peace) proposal before them.”

An Omani delegation held talks in Sanaa with Houthi leaders including the group’s religious and military leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi. A Saudi diplomat, meanwhile, said there have been ongoing efforts, including direct Saudi-Houthi talks since 2019, to find a common ground. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

A spokesman for the Houthis did not respond to calls and messages seeking comment.

The rebels want the reopening of Sanaa International Airport, a vital link for Yemen to the outside world that hasn’t seen regular commercial flights since 2015, and the lifting of restrictions on the vital Houthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeida.

Salisbury said negotiations have been stuck on what comes first. The Houthis, he said, want a stand-alone deal on the airport and Hodeida before negotiating a cease-fire. Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government want a package deal on all those issues.

“Until the gap can be bridged, I would expect the Marib offensive to continue,” he said..

AP Photographer Nariman el-Mofty contributed this report.