US-Led Strikes on Yemeni Rebels Draw Attention Back to War Raging in Arab World’s Poorest Nation

UK Ministry of Defence via AP
In this photo provided by the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, taken from the bridge of HMS Diamond, Sea Viper missiles are fired in the Red Sea.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — U.S.-led airstrikes on Yemen’s Houthi rebels over their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea pulled the world’s focus Friday back on the yearslong war raging in the Arab world’s poorest nation, even as shipping across the wider Mideast remains threatened.

As the bombing lit the predawn sky over multiple sites held by the Iranian-backed rebels, Saudi Arabia quickly sought to distance itself from the attacks as it seeks to maintain a delicate détente with Iran and a cease-fire in the Yemen war from which it hopes to finally withdraw.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy acknowledged an attack days earlier on a ship in the far reaches of the Indian Ocean — an attack that may signal Iran’s willingness to strike vessels as part of a wider maritime campaign over Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Tehran on Thursday separately seized another tanker involved in an earlier crisis over America seizing oil targeted by international sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

It remained unclear how extensive the damage was, though the Houthis said at least five sites including airfields had been attacked. Hussein al-Ezzi, a Houthi official in their Foreign Ministry, acknowledged “a massive aggressive attack by American and British ships, submarines and warplanes.

“America and Britain will undoubtedly have to prepare to pay a heavy price and bear all the dire consequences of this blatant aggression,” al-Ezzi wrote online.

Yemen has been targeted by U.S. military action over the last four American presidencies. A campaign of drone strikes began under President George W. Bush to target the local affiliate of al-Qaida, attacks that have continued under the Biden administration. Meanwhile, the U.S. has launched raids and other military operations amid the ongoing war in Yemen.

That war began when the Houthis swept into the capital, Sanaa, in 2014. A Saudi-led coalition including the United Arab Emirates launched a war to back Yemen’s exiled government in 2015, quickly morphing the conflict into a regional confrontation as Iran backed the Houthis with weapons and other support.

That war, however, has slowed as the Houthis maintain their grip on the territory they hold. The UAE even came under Houthi missile fire multiple times in 2022. After the Emirates left the war, Saudi Arabia reached a Chinese-mediated deal with Iran to ease tensions in hopes of finally withdrawing from the war.

However, an overall deal has yet to be reached, likely sparking Saudi Arabia’s expression Friday of “great concern” over the airstrikes.

“While the kingdom stresses the importance of preserving the security and stability of the Red Sea region, … it calls for restraint and avoiding escalation,” the Foreign Ministry’s statement said.

There was no immediate reaction from Iran, which has supplied weapons and aid to the Houthis.

Meanwhile Friday, the U.S. Navy confirmed an attack days earlier that happened near the coasts of India and Sri Lanka. The chemical tanker Pacific Gold was struck Jan. 4 by what the Navy called “an Iranian one-way attack” drone, causing some damage to the vessel but no injuries.

“Iran’s actions are contrary to international law and threaten maritime security and stability,” said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, the head of the Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet.

The Pacific Gold is managed by Singapore-based Eastern Pacific Shipping, a company is ultimately controlled by Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer. Eastern Pacific, as well as naval officials in India and Sri Lanka, had not responded to multiple requests for comment from The Associated Press over the attack. Eastern Pacific previously has been targeted in suspected Iranian attacks.

A private security official previously acknowledged to the AP that the attack took place. The attack had been first reported by the Lebanese broadcaster Al-Mayadeen, a channel politically affiliated with Hezbollah that has previously announced other Iran-linked attacks in the region. Iran itself has not acknowledged carrying out the attack.