The crimes which the local Zaidi Shia leader is accused of - ranging from voicing anti-US sentiment to extortion - barely seem to justify the body count. At least 146 Yemenis have died so far, and the figure may be as high as 200.

But for the government in the capital, Sanaa, the growing toll could prove politically useful in demonstrating that Yemen is playing its part in eliminating support for Islamist groups unpopular in the West.

Husain's brother, Parliamentary Deputy Yahya al-Huthi, told Aljazeera.net on Tuesday that his sibling was nothing less than a "criminal" who was a source of international embarrassment.

"The government spared no effort to resolve this problem peacefully. It was Husain who rejected the negotiations and ignored the ceasefire," said Yahya al-Huthi.

Also, at the beginning of July, Interior Minister Rashad al-Alimi presented to the parliament a catalogue of justifications for the need to kill or capture the fugitive.

The allegations

Firstly, al-Huthi has "destroyed public property and destabilised the security and stability of the country".

Next, he "established a secret group called The Believing Youth in 1997 and established religious centres throughout Yemen's mountainous north".

Lastly he has paid followers to shout out extremist anti-US and anti-Israeli slogans during Friday prayers every week - "which harms the national interest", according to al-Alimi.

None the less, President Ali Abd Allah Salih himself sounded unconvinced when he recently talked of the siege currently underway in Saada's Haydan district.

"Regrettably, I have, for the first time, learned that he [al-Huthi] is leading the Believing Youth organisation," Salih told a meeting of Zaidi Shia religious scholars on 3 July 2004 - a fortnight after hostilities began.

"He has stormed into mosques, raised the flag of Hizb Allah instead of the national flag, and collected money from people forcefully"

Yemeni Government spokesman

"I thought they are just hot-headed guys who chant in mosques for the death of Israel and America, something that is not a problem."

But the president did hint at another reason why so many Yemenis have died in the past three weeks - the need to prove its cooperation and support for the United States.

"At the beginning of invasion on Iraq, the followers of al-Huthi were in the frontlines of demonstrations against the United States embassy," he said.

"Many political forces reprimanded me for not controlling the Believing Youth organisation, saying they had activities that would put the nation in trouble," Salih added.

Specific accusations

A government spokesman told Aljazeera.net of more specific charges.

"He has stormed into mosques, raised the flag of Hizb Allah instead of the national flag, and collected money from people forcefully.

"As for the armed opposition accusation, people should remember that virtually everyone is armed in Yemen. There are more guns than people here"

Muhammad al-Sabri,
political analyst

"He asked everyone who buys meat at 500 Yemeni riyals ($2.70) to buy ammunition at 1000 Yemeni riyals. He as well told people this was necessary to defend themselves against the US."

A professor and political analyst at Sanaa University was prepared to go further.

Ahmad al-Kibsi told Aljazeera.net on Tuesday that al-Huthi has attacked Sunni mosques and is buying his support from mostly illiterate tribesmen desperate for money in what is the Gulf's poorest country.

Foreign influence?

"Where is he getting this money? I would hazard a guess that it is coming from Shia groups in Lebanon and Iran," al-Kibsi said.

Precious few details about al-Huthi's life have been made public.

What is known for certain is that the 50-year-old belonged to the moderate religious Hizb al-Haqq party between 1993 and 1997 and was a deputy in parliament.

He left to become a religious teacher in Saada where he met up with Shia exiles who fled Iraq in the early 90s.

Al-Huthi also received government money to establish the very same schools that have now been condemned.

Objectives

Although an advocate of Zaidi Shiism - a Muslim sect quite distinct from the Shiism practised in Iraq and Iran - al-Huthi has been greatly influenced by Iraqi Shia refugees, says journalist and analyst Muhammad al-Sabri.

He suggests that after the US bombing of Iraq in 1998, al-Huthi decided at first to speak out against the US military presence in Yemen and Washington's policy in the Middle East.

But following the invasiion of Iraq last year, his protests became increasingly violent.

Anti-Israeli sentiment in Yemen
has led to anti-US feelings as well

Al-Sabri said the wanted cleric probably has about 500 armed supporters, though only a few will be receiving the $50 or $100 a month claimed by the government.

"Husain is not a leader in the Zaidiya and we should not believe many of the rumours that have made it into the western media concerning him.

"People forget that al-Huthi actually received money from the government until their split emerged last year.

"As for the armed opposition accusation, people should remember that virtually everyone is armed in Yemen. There are more guns than people here." 

Scholars' appeal

Whatever the truth, attempts to arrest the Shia leader have proved costly in both human and material terms.

A number of prominent scholars in Saada released a statement last week in which they pleaded with President Salih to prevent more bloodshed by calling off government forces.

They also demanded action to lift the siege of citizens in the area and provide financial help to ease the devastating impact on the local community.

"We have found that the first and sole reason for sending the military to Saada was his [al-Huthi's] call for hostility to the US and Israel.

"President Ali Abd Allah Salih must stop the military assault and lift the siege... We call upon all members of our nation to unify ... so as not to be a prey to enemies who have declared a crusade against us," the statement concluded.