The Iran-backed Houthi Shiite tribe in Yemen is testing the US and appears to be trying to either intimidate US forces near the coast into withdrawing or engage the US in warfare.
The USS Nitze launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and destroyed three radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory on Yemen’s Red Sea Coast early Thursday, a retaliatory action that followed two attacks this week in which rebels fired missiles at US Navy ships.
The strikes marked the first time the US has acted against the Houthis in Yemen’s long-running civil war. Until Thursday’s attacks, the US has only provided logistical support and refueling to the Saudi-led coalition battling Yemen’s Iran-backed Shiite rebels.
While the US military has been focused on al-Qaida in Yemen, which is Sunni, the Houthis had not been a primary target of American forces until the missile launches from Houthi-controlled territory this week.
There is no information on casualties. The three radar sites were in remote areas, where there was little risk of civilian casualties, a military official said.
President Barack Obama authorized the strikes at the recommendation of Defense Secretary Ash Carter and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.
“These limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships and our freedom of navigation in this important maritime passageway,” Cook stated after the attacks. “The United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic, as appropriate, and will continue to maintain our freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb and elsewhere around the world.”
Early Wednesday, the rebels fired two missiles at the USS Mason, a guided missile destroyer that is conducting routine operations in the region with the USS Ponce. Both missiles missed their target.
The same two ships came under a similar attack from the same location on Sunday. The missiles used in the attacks were ones known to be used by Iran.
“These unjustified attacks are serious, but they will not deter us from our mission,” the chief of naval operations, Adm. John Richardson, said in a statement Wednesday. “The team in USS Mason demonstrated initiative and toughness as they defended themselves and others against these unfounded attacks over the weekend and again today. All Americans should be proud of them.”
Escalation with Iran?
The missile launch could affect relations with Iran, which claims it backs the Yemeni rebels, but denies arming them. However, the US Navy has intercepted several ships carrying Iranian weaponry on the way to Yemen.
The Houthis’ attacks raise fears about the maritime safety in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which serves as a gateway for oil tankers and ships traveling to and from Europe through the Suez Canal. The US moved more naval ships near the strait after an Emirati-leased Swift boat came under rocket fire near the same area and sustained serious damage last week.
Analysts with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy called the Houthi missile fire “a surprisingly aggressive move,” but stressed there were limits to Iran’s control of the rebels.
“Houthi relations with the Islamic Republic resemble the Iran-Hamas relationship more than the Iran-Hezbollah relationship — that is, the Houthis are autonomous partners who usually act in accordance with their own interests, though often with smuggled Iranian arms and other indirect help,” the analysts wrote in a report released early Thursday.
By: World Israel News Staff
AP contributed to this report.