“We have lost everything, our infrastructure, and we have nothing left to lose,” he said. “Now it is a long war of attrition.”
The Houthis’ control of such key territory has made them essential to international efforts to end the conflict, leaving policy makers and negotiators struggling to figure out what they want. And the group’s anti-American stance rankles Washington, which used to count on the Yemeni government as an ally against Al Qaeda and has aided Saudi Arabia in its military campaign against the rebels.
The rebels’ slogan is spray-painted on walls and checkpoints throughout their territory: “God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. Curse on the Jews. Victory for Islam.”
The Houthi movement began as a religious revival in the 1990s among Zaydi Muslims, an Arab religious minority in northern Yemen who sought to push back against efforts by Saudi Arabia to spread its fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam.
The group takes its name from its founder, Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi, who was killed by Yemeni forces in 2004. His followers launched an insurgency against the government, and developed as a guerrilla force in a series of civil wars.
That background of insurgency rooted in backwater parts of the Arab world’s poorest state forged the group into a strong fighting force but gave it few skilled politicians, intellectuals or technocrats — a weakness glaringly apparent during a recent visit by New York Times journalists in Sana.
Much of the Houthis’ administration relies on civil servants who chafe under their control and on followers of a former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has allied with them.
Further impeding their efforts at governance is the Saudi bombardment, which has gravely damaged an already weak economy and infrastructure.
In interviews during a recent trip to Yemen, Houthi leaders and fighters described themselves as “revolutionaries” in the mold of Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza, saying their aim was to cleanse the country of corrupt leaders they considered beholden to foreign powers. In describing their goals, they spouted beliefs that often clashed with their behavior.
“I saw that they stood with justice and the oppressed,” said Majid Ali, who dropped out of a Sana university to join the Houthis when they seized the capital. “The goal was not to take control, but to help the oppressed and the weak.”
But their enemies in Yemen and Saudi Arabia insist that the Houthis are a dangerous proxy force being used by Iran to expand its influence and challenge Saudi influence.
Analysts and diplomats who follow Yemen say the reality is somewhere in between. While commonly considered Shiite, the Houthis’ Zaydi sect differs significantly from Iran’s official Shiite creed, and historically ties between the Houthis and Iran were not strong.
But their shared hatred for Saudi Arabia has brought them together in the current conflict, and Iran has given the Houthis weapons and technical help to attack Saudi forces along the border.
April Longley Alley, a Yemen analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the Houthis’ surge out of the north to seize the capital had been opportunistic. Their objectives included gaining a decisive stake in national decision-making and in Yemen’s military and security apparatus.
What remains unclear, she said, is how the war has changed those goals.
“Now that they are in the capital, the question is how much of a stake do they think they can hold on to after this experience with governance,” she said.
During our 10-day trip to Sana and nearby provinces, it was clear that the Houthis were in charge. Their authorities issued our visas, determined what sites we could visit and assigned us a minder to make sure we stuck to the program.
Houthi checkpoints dotted the roads, sometimes less than a mile apart, and some of the scrappy young fighters who manned them struggled to read our Houthi-issued permits before allowing us to pass. While this slowed traffic, Houthi security measures have put a stop to the suicide bombings and assassinations that used to be frequent in the capital, perhaps their greatest achievement in governing.
When the internationally recognized Yemeni government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled Sana, much of the state bureaucracy remained. Since then, the Houthis have worked with followers of Mr. Saleh, the former president, who was forced from power in 2012, to extend their control over the weakened organs of the state.
Many ministries have been bombed by the Saudi-led coalition, and those still intact are nearly empty, their employees staying home for fear of airstrikes and because they are not being paid.
In many cases, the Houthis have installed their loyalists as overseers, giving militants with few qualifications authority over civil servants with significant experience.
One Sana-based businessman recalled going to a police station to file a complaint and finding a dozen officers unable to take action without orders from their new Houthi boss.
To visit Sana’s main pediatric and maternity hospital, we had to get permission from its new “director,” a Houthi in a robe and plastic sandals who allowed that his sole qualification was a diploma in nursing.
A nurse who had worked there for 16 years said he had not been paid in two months and complained that the Houthis had no way to fund their administration.
“And if you go out and protest to ask for your rights, they could take you to prison,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of arrest. “It’s all armed militias.”
Officially overseeing the Houthis’ attempt to govern is the High Political Council, formed this year.
In an interview in the Republican Palace, Yemen’s equivalent of the White House, the council’s head, Saleh al-Sammad, called the body “the highest authority in the country,” but acknowledged that the state’s main sources of income were out of its hands.
The council took another hit in September when President Hadi moved Yemen’s Central Bank, which paid the salaries of 1.2 million civil servants, to the southern port city of Aden, where his rival administration has a presence.
Mr. Sammad blamed Saudi Arabia, the United States and the United Nations for Yemen’s growing humanitarian crisis, but said it would only intensify people’s will to fight.
“Most of the Yemeni people are armed, and they consider Saudi Arabia responsible for their humiliation,” he said. “The worse the economic situation gets, the more people will be pushed toward confrontation and the fronts.”
The Houthis’ fighting mettle and alliance with some Yemeni military units has enabled them to stage painful attacks on Saudi Arabia and fire ballistic missiles over the border, killing Saudi soldiers and civilians.
The group’s endgame remains unclear, however. It has participated in peace talks and agreed to a recent cease-fire, but the truce expired on Monday, amid accusations by both sides of violations and with no sign of when talks might resume.
Many Yemenis in the country’s south and east oppose what they see as a Houthi coup, and measuring the depth of their support in areas controlled by the Houthis is difficult.
Human rights organizations have accused the Houthis of indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, arbitrary arrests of political opponents and torture. But some Yemenis who have been living under Houthi rule said the Saudi intervention had unified diverse forces against a common enemy.
“What brought the army together with Ansar Allah?” asked Tariq Mohammed, a policeman in the town of Hajjah, using another name for the Houthis. “The aggression against the country. That is what caused us to come together as one hand.”