Yemen: For Allah & the Imam

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From remote Yemen last September came word of a revolution that had toppled the centuries-old dynasty of Imam Mohammed el Badr. Leader of the coup was Colonel Abdullah Sallal, 45, newly appointed commander of the palace guard, who announced in the Yemen capital of San'a that his troops had killed the Imam and were in control of the primitive, Nebraska-sized country. Weeks later it was learned that Badr had in fact escaped the shelled ruins of his palace and taken refuge in Yemen's rugged hill country, whose warlike tribes have traditionally been loyal to the Imam.

Clouded Claims. Ever since, helped by money and supplies from the uneasy monarchs of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, the Imam and his tribal warriors have been inching doggedly back toward San'a. President Sallal appealed for help to Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, an old friend of the Imam but an even more implacable foe of the oil-rich desert dynasties who were helping Badr. Nasser rushed in Egyptian troops, whose Soviet-made guns, tanks and jets make them the Arab world's most formidable fighting force.

Though the republicans had not in fact won the whole country, the U.S. decided reluctantly last December to recognize Sallal's regime, having first won Nasser's promise to withdraw his troops. Egypt's President has not only failed to honor his pledge but has actually raised the expeditionary force to 23,000 troops on the pretext that Britain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have all sent in forces to help the Imam. Britain, which has not recognized Sallal, fears that Egyptian penetration of the Arabian Peninsula will isolate its oil fields and deal a crippling blow to its economy.

Fearful lest the hot little war engulf the entire Middle East, the U.N. last week sent Ralph Bunche, a veteran Middle East troubleshooter who is trusted by both sides, to discuss a solution with representatives of Sallal and the Imam; from Yemen he will go to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The actual course of the fighting has been clouded by the grandiose claims of both sides and the formidable obstacles that face Western newsmen who even try to get into Yemen, let alone reach the battle lines. One who succeeded was TIME Correspondent George de Carvalho. From Beirut last week he cabled his report on a 23-day trek in which he crossed the peaks, plateaus and wadis from Aden to the Saudi Arabian border, traveling a total of 1,000 miles by camel, donkey, car and shoe leather without once leaving royalist-held territory (see map). Along the way, Correspondent De Carvalho was repeatedly shot at by Egyptian fighter planes, tanks, mortars, and artillery, saw two of his six Yemeni guards killed and one wounded in battle.

Rifles & Faith. The fighting is most intense in a 70-mile arc curving around the eastern approaches to San'a. In most areas, the royalists limit themselves to hit-and-run guerrilla raids, but here they are taking and holding ground, attacking steadily and advancing on a wide front. Reports De Carvalho: "The incredible fact is that the Egyptians are losing in Yemen. Ragged, barefoot Yemeni tribesmen, armed only with ancient rifles and faith in Allah, are kicking hell out of Nasser's elite troops despite their overpowering Soviet equipment, overwhelmingly superior firepower, and unchallenged airpower."

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