U.S. Leads Second Strike Against Houthis in Yemen, as Conflict Escalates

The United States led another strike against the Houthi militia in Yemen, two U.S. officials said on Friday night, bombing a radar facility as part of an effort to further degrade the Iran-backed group’s ability to attack ships transiting the Red Sea.

It was the second straight day that the U.S. military fired on a Houthi target, after an American-led barrage of military strikes early Friday local time that was aimed at securing critical shipping routes between Europe and Asia. The strikes come amid fears of a wider escalation of the conflict in the Middle East.

Houthi forces in Yemen vowed earlier on Friday to retaliate for the previous strikes, which involved missiles and warplanes launched by the United States and Britain, and came in response to intensifying attacks on commercial vessels and warships in the Red Sea by the Iran-backed Houthi militia, which has said it was acting in solidarity with Palestinians in the war between Israel and Hamas.

Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, director of the U.S. military’s Joint Staff, told reporters on a conference call before the new strike that the Pentagon was more than ready for a response from the Houthis.

“I would expect that they will attempt some sort of retaliation,” said General Sims, adding that doing so would be a mistake. “We simply are not going to be messed with here.”

A military spokesman for the Houthis, Yahya Saree, said in a social media post on Friday that the U.S.-led strikes would “not go unanswered and unpunished.” He said the earlier strikes had killed at least five members of the Houthi forces, an armed group that controls northern Yemen, including the capital, Sana.

The response on Friday from the Houthis, however, was a single anti-ship missile lobbed harmlessly into the Red Sea, far from any passing vessel, General Sims said.

John Kirby, a White House spokesman, said on Friday that the strikes, ordered by President Biden, had not been intended to ignite a wider regional war.

“We’re not interested in a war with Yemen — we’re not interested in a conflict of any kind,” he said. “In fact, everything the president has been doing has been trying to prevent any escalation of conflict, including the strikes last night.”

Mr. Kirby said that everything that the United States hit was a “valid, legitimate military target.”

American and British forces on Friday fired more than 150 missiles and bombs at several dozen targets in Yemen, chosen specifically to damage the Houthis’ ability to imperil shipping — weapons storage areas, radars and missile and drone launch sites — U.S. officials said. The strikes marked the first Western assault after repeated warnings by the United States and its allies that the Houthis and Iran must halt the attacks at sea or face consequences, only to see them increase.

More than 2,000 ships have been forced to divert thousands of miles to avoid the Red Sea, causing weeks of delays, American officials say. On Tuesday, American and British warships intercepted one of the largest barrages of Houthi drone and missile strikes yet, an assault that U.S. and other Western military officials said was the last straw.

Military analysts earlier on Friday were still assessing the results of the first barrage, but General Sims said the strikes had achieved their objective of damaging the Houthis’ ability to launch the kind of complex drone and missile attack they conducted on Tuesday.

U.S. and British forces hit more than 60 targets in 16 locations with more than 100 precision-guided munitions in the first wave of strikes, General Sims and other officials said. About 30 to 60 minutes later, a second wave hit dozens more targets in 12 additional locations with more than 50 weapons, they said.

Casualties were probably minimal because of the hour and the remote locations of many of the targets, General Sims said. He sidestepped questions about whether the Houthis had been able to move people and equipment out of harm’s way beforehand because of widespread news reports that the strikes were imminent.

The consequences of the tensions in the Red Sea have spread far beyond the Middle East. A number of commercial ships headed for the Suez Canal changed course after the American-led strikes. The International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, a trade association, said shipping companies had been advised by the U.S.-led coalition to avoid the Bab al Mendab, the narrow strait at the mouth of the Red Sea, for “several days.”

The Suez Canal, which handles more than 20,000 ships a year, providing billions of dollars in transit fees for Egypt, has seen traffic slashed as hundreds of ships have diverted their journeys to avoid the canal and the Red Sea, taking the much longer route around the southern tip of Africa, adding from one to three weeks.

Mr. Biden, in confirming the initial attacks on Thursday night — Friday morning in Yemen — said 2,000 ships had been forced to divert since mid-November.

In the three months since the Houthis began attacking commercial ships, the price of shipping a standard 40-foot container between China and Northern Europe more than doubled to $4,000 from $1,500, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German research organization.

The president called the first strikes a “clear message that the United States and our partners will not tolerate attacks on our personnel or allow hostile actors to imperil freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most critical commercial routes.”

British warplanes took part in the earlier strikes, and Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands provided logistics, intelligence and other support, according to U.S. officials.

The attacks prompted large protests in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, and even some American allies in the Arab world said they worried that the attacks would not deter the Houthis and could further inflame a region seething over Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Oman, a U.S. ally that has mediated talks with the Houthis, criticized the first strikes and expressed its “deep concern.”

Saudi Arabia, which is wary of upending a fragile cease-fire in Yemen between the Houthis and the internationally recognized, Saudi-backed government, said it was following the situation in the Red Sea with “extreme concern.” After spending years and billions of dollars on Yemen’s civil war, the Saudis have sought to pull back from the conflict.

“The kingdom confirms the importance of protecting the security and stability of the Red Sea region,” the Saudi government said in a statement, adding a call for “self-restraint and avoiding escalation.”

Russia requested an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting on Friday to discuss the U.S.-led strikes, according to a diplomat from France, which holds the rotating council presidency this month. The session was scheduled for Friday afternoon. On Wednesday, the Council adopted a resolution that condemned Houthi attacks in the Red Sea but did not authorize any action in response.

Analysts who study the Houthis said that the American-led airstrikes could play into the group’s agenda and might be unlikely to stop the group’s attacks.

“This was not a miscalculation by the Houthis,” said Hannah Porter, a senior research officer at ARK Group, a British company that works in international development. “This was the goal. They hope to see an expanded regional war, and they are eager to be on the front lines of that war.”

Within hours of the first wave of strikes, a senior Houthi official, Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, said that the United States and Britain would soon realize that they had engaged in “the biggest folly in their history.”

The war in Gaza has catapulted the Houthis, whose ideology has long included hostility toward the United States and Israel, to unlikely prominence. Part of the group’s slogan is “Death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews.” Their attacks in the Red Sea and their support for the Palestinian cause have gained them popularity in the Arab world.

The group, which espouses a religious ideology inspired by a sect of Shiite Islam, has honed its military capabilities through years of civil war. In 2014, it took over Sana and repelled a Saudi-led coalition intended to oust it, deepening one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises while leaving the Houthis in power in northern Yemen. There, they have created an impoverished proto-state that they rule with an iron fist.

“They calculate that there aren’t many valuable targets that the U.S. and U.K. can strike, as the country is already in ruins,” said Abdullah Baabood, an Omani senior nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “Therefore, they will not hesitate to keep testing the situation and escalating the conflict.”

The strikes could also help the Houthis with domestic politics, said Ibrahim Jalal, a Yemeni nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based research group. Direct confrontation with the West provides “another ‘foreign enemy’ pretext to distract the public from their failing rebel governance that does not deliver services,” he said.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Yemen have died from fighting, hunger and disease since a Saudi-led coalition began its bombing campaign in 2015, supported with American weapons and military assistance.

Aid groups and Yemeni analysts have warned that the new strikes, combined with the escalation in the Red Sea, could worsen the economic crisis in Yemen, increasing fuel and food costs and deepening hunger.

Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt, Raja Abdulrahim, Zach Montague, Saeed Al-Batati, Stanley Reed, Farnaz Fassihi, Stephen Castle and Gaya Gupta.

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