Mukalla, Yemen – Two years after al-Qaida militants withdrew from Yemen’s eastern city of Mukalla, troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates patrol the streets in armored vehicles, driving past secessionist murals and keeping an eye out for jihadi sleeper cells.

The city on the Gulf of Aden, hundreds of miles from the front lines of the devastating war with Houthi rebels, offers a glimpse at the other conflicts simmering in Yemen, which threaten to boil over even if the latest international push for a truce in Stockholm this week succeeds.

Chipped murals throughout the city still bear the flag of communist South Yemen, and secessionists want to press their demands in any U.N.-brokered peace deal between the Houthis, the internationally-recognized government and Saudi-led forces. The United States under President Donald Trump meanwhile has increased the tempo of its drone strike campaign against al-Qaida to the highest level ever seen in the long shadow war.

Outrage over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents has galvanized efforts to end Yemen’s civil war, which pits the U.S.-backed and Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-aligned Houthis. But the lingering instability in Mukalla and other areas raises questions about whether a truce would bring peace to the impoverished country – or simply free up the warring parties to settle other scores.

“The situation in the south remains one of the least analyzed aspects of the conflict and a worrying policy vacuum exists,” Chatham House expert Peter Salisbury wrote. “The south is a ‘powder keg’ in the words of one seasoned observer, waiting to explode.”

Yemen’s war pits the Houthis – Shiite militants who hold the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen – against an internationally-backed government that is heavily dependent on Saudi and Emirati forces and is allied with various local armed groups.

More than 10,000 people have been killed in the war, with experts estimating a higher toll.

Initially a civil war, Yemen’s conflict has grown into a regional conflict. Saudi-led warplanes using American weaponry have hit hospitals and markets, killing large numbers of civilians. Iran has supplied arms ranging from assault rifles to ballistic missiles to the Houthis, according to U.N. experts, Western nations and analysts. Tehran supports the Houthis but denies arming them.

Mukalla is far from the Houthis’ front lines, but the collapse of the central government allowed al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to sweep in from the rugged, surrounding desert to seize control in 2015. The militants, part of what Washington considers to be the deadliest branch of the terror group, seized weapons from military stockpile.


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