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Saudi bid to limit damage after bombing funeral killing 140 in Yemen

Saudi bid to limit damage caused by bombing of funeral gathering in Yemen killing 140 mourners, injuring 610

In an apparent bid to limit damage caused by its bombing of a funeral gathering in Sanaa, Yemen, killing 140 mourners and injuring hundreds, Saudi Arabia has claimed that the Houthis have targeted the holy city of Mecca with a ballistic missile that was "intercepted and destroyed" 65 kilometers from Mecca.

Video grap of the bombing on the funeral in Yemen

Video grap of the bombing on the funeral in Yemen

Mecca is the home of Kaaba, also known as the Grand Mosque, to which all Muslims in the world turn their faces for their daily prayers.

The Yemeni Houthi army's spokesman Brigadier General Sharaf Luqman denied Saudi claim of targeting the holy city of Mecca. He slammed the allegation as "a media war and misleading of public opinion," affirming that his army fighters are "very careful to spare civilian areas, particularly the Islamic holy sites, from any attack." Brigadier Luqman said that Thursday's ballistic missile attack was targeted at the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

The Houthis and their allies, including forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, have a stockpile of Soviet-era Scud missiles and locally designed variants. A Houthi ballistic missile fired earlier this month targeted Taif, home to Saudi Arabia's King Fahd Air Base, which also is near Mecca.

The Associated Press pointed out that invoking Mecca also invigorated support for Saudi Arabia as it leads the stalemated war in the Arab world's poorest country, as well as turned attention away from those starving under a kingdom-led blockade and the civilians killed in its airstrikes.

Gulf Arab countries allied with Saudi Arabia immediately began condemning the attack, suggesting the Houthis intentionally targeted the Islamic world’s holiest site, the Kaaba. Many also immediately linked the attack to Iran, further inflaming regional sectarianism.

“The Iranian regime supports a terrorist group that launched its rockets on Mecca,” Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nayhan wrote on Twitter. “Is this regime Islamic as it claims?”

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi dismissed the claims that the Houthis targeted Mecca as “ridiculous.” “We advise officials of the [United Arab] Emirates and Saudi Arabia not to use Islamic holy sites for their mean political intentions and not to resort to this sort of hypocritical, rift-making and dangerous hyperbole,” Ghasemi was quoted as saying by Iran’s ISNA news agency.

Yemen, on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, has been in the midst of a civil war since September 2014 when the Houthis swept into the capital of Sanaa and overthrew the country's western recognized government. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of Arab countries began air strikes against the Houthi forces.

However, the human right groups are alarmed at the mounting civilian casualties from the airstrikes, especially the Saudi strike earlier this month on a funeral in Sanaa killing some 140 people and wounded over 600.

The Associated Press reported that more than 10,000 people have been killed or wounded and 3 million of the country's 26 million people have been driven from their homes by the fighting.

In August, a UN report said that the airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen are responsible for the majority of civilians killed in the ongoing conflict.

The Yemeni news agency Saba reported Sunday (Oct 30), at least 60 prisoners were killed and 38 others wounded when the US-backed Saudi-led coalition fighter jets bombed a prison early on Sunday in al- Zaydiya district of al-Hodayda port city. The prison was totally collapsed. 

Medical officials told Saba that the death toll could rise in the next hours because a lot of injured were in critical conditions and the hospitals are suffering from acute shortage of medicines due to the 19-month prolonged air, sea and land blockade. 

On Saturday, Oct 29, at least 17 civilians, including 11 members of one family, were killed in a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in the war-torn western city of Taiz, Yemeni officials said, adding that the airstrike targeted the house of a citizen in a southern district called al-Salw. Taiz has been fought over between coalition-backed forces and Houthi rebels for the past 18 months. 

Human Rights Watch 

Earlier this month, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes following an airstrike on a funeral in Yemen. On October 8, at least two air-dropped munitions penetrated the roof of a hall containing over 1,000 mourners during the funeral ceremony of Ali al-Rawishan, the father of the Sana’a-based administration’s interior minister, Jalal al-Rawishan. At least 140 people were killed and 610 wounded.

“After unlawfully attacking schools, markets, hospitals, weddings, and homes over the last 19 months, the Saudi-led coalition has now added a funeral to its ever-increasing list of abuses,” Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director, said. 

After interviewing survivors of the tragedy and examining information relating to the strike, the New York-based organization concluded that the Saudi strike was a deliberate action – first of all, because the funeral service, which was attended by over 1,000 mourners, was made public ahead of time via a Facebook post.

In addition to the Saudis, HRW said that the US and the UK are indirectly complicit in the deaths of civilians in the strike, and the overall severity of casualties in the 19-month long civil war in Yemen.

According to HRW’s record, since the beginning of the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen (which began on March 26, 2015), the Saudi coalition, with direct military support from the US and assistance from the UK, have conducted at least 58 “unlawful airstrikes.”

The HRW has repeatedly criticized the coalition’s use of US and UK-produced weapons, including cluster munition in Yemen. Yet despite calls by US officials to review its support for its Middle Eastern ally, the HRW noted that the US continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, approving more than $20 billion in military sales in 2015 alone.

Attack on Kaaba, Islam’s holiest place

Going back to the Saudi claim of Houthi’s missile attack on Mecca where Islam’s holiest place is located, it will be instructive to relate the real attacks on Kaaba in the past. 

The Kaaba has been repaired and reconstructed many times since Prophet Muhammad's time. The structure was severely damaged by fire in October 683, during the first siege of Mecca in the war between the Umayyads and Abd-Allah ibn al-Zubayr, who ruled Mecca for many years between the death of Ali Ben Talib (the fourth caliph) and the consolidation of Umayyad power. 

The Kaaba was bombarded with stones in the second siege of Mecca in 692, in which the Umayyad army was led by al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf. The fall of the city and the death of Ibn al-Zubayr allowed the Umayyads under ʿAbdu l-Malik ibn Marwan to finally reunite all the Islamic possessions and end the long civil war. 

During the Hajj of 930, the Qarmatians attacked Mecca, defiled the Zamzam Well with the bodies of pilgrims and stole the Black Stone, taking it to the oasis region of Eastern Arabia known as al-Aḥsāʾ, where it remained until the Abbasids ransomed it in 952.

In recent history, the Kaaba seizure occurred during November and December 1979 when insurgents calling for the overthrow of the House of Saud took over the Kaaba. The insurgents declared that the Mahdi (the "redeemer of Islam") had arrived in the form of one of their leaders – Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani – and called on Muslims to obey him. Al-Qahtani was killed in the recapture of the Kaaba, which is also known as the Grand Mosque.

Soon after the rebel seizure, about a hundred security officers of the Ministry of Interior attempted to retake the mosque, but were turned back with heavy casualties. The survivors were quickly joined by units of the Saudi Arabian Army and Saudi Arabian National Guard.

According to Lawrence Wright in the book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, a team of three French commandos from the Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN) arrived in Mecca. The commandos pumped gas into the underground chambers. More than two weeks after the assault began, the surviving rebels finally surrendered.

However, this account is contradicted by at other accounts, including that of then GIGN commanding officer Christian Prouteau: the three GIGN commandos trained and equipped the Saudi forces and devised their attack plan but did not take part in the action and did not set foot in the Mosque. He claims that Pakistani SSG commandos carried out the operation instead.

The Kaaba seizure was led by Juhayman al-Otaybi, a member of an influential family in Najd.  Juhayman and 67 of his fellow rebels, who survived the assault, were captured and later beheaded. 

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America (www.journalofamerica.net) email: asghazali2011 (@) gmail.com

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