Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would designate the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization, a group of aid agencies warned could hinder attempts to deal with what many believe is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The nomination will take effect on January 19, one day before President-elect Joe Biden, Pompeo, takes office said in a statement late Sunday. He said he also intends to designate three of the group’s leaders, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi and Abdullah Yahya al Hakim, as specially designated global terrorists.
“These designations will provide additional tools to counter terrorist activity and Ansarallah terrorism,” he said, referring to the group also known as the Houthis.
The Trump administration was embroiled in an internal debate over whether the Houthi rebels should be officially designated a terrorist organization as aid groups and United Nations officials warned the move could worsen the already humanitarian disaster in Yemen, four people, those familiar with the discussions told NBC News last month.
After six years of fierce conflict between the Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized Yemeni government, 80 percent of the Yemeni population, more than 29 million people, are in need of humanitarian aid, and experts have declared famine to almost 17,000 people International Rescue Committee.
As of 2015 there are more than 112,000 people estimated to have died as a direct result of the violence.
The Houthi Group is de facto the agency in North Yemen and, according to Reuters, aid agencies must work with them to provide aid.
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Pompeo said Sunday that the US wanted to take measures to lessen the impact of the labels on certain humanitarian activities and imports in Yemen.
The measures include the granting of special licenses by the Treasury Department to allow US aid to continue in Yemen, as well as the activities of certain international and non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations, Pompeo said. Critical imports like food and medicines are also covered by the licenses, he added.
An Oxfam spokesman disagreed, saying the ramifications of the designations are being felt across the country as banks, corporations and humanitarian donors decide they cannot risk doing business in Yemen.
Save The Children said the labels could put thousands of youth at further risk of hunger and disease as millions of people get closer to famine.
And the Norwegian Refugee Council warned that the designation would deal another “devastating blow” to a country already in the midst of a “full blown” humanitarian disaster.
The civil war in Yemen began in 2014 when the Tehran-backed Houthi rebels took control of the capital Sanaa. A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened on behalf of the government in 2015 and turned the conflict into a proxy war between the regional enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as an internal conflict.
After the Arab Spring, Tehran began providing money, weapons and training to the Houthis International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based research institute.
The move on Sunday came as the Trump administration continued its campaign against Iran with maximum pressure in the final weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Proponents of the name see it as a farewell blow to Iranian influence in the Middle East and the expected efforts of the new Biden government to win Tehran back to the 2015 nuclear deal.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
Abigail Williams and Dan De Luce contributed.