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Source: FT

Feb 4, 2024

US and UK hit Houthis in fresh air strikes against Iran-backed militias

Back-to-back assaults underline how Washington is stepping up its response to militant attacks against American forces

By Felicia Schwartz in Washington, Andrew England in London, Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran

US forces carried out a second wave of strikes against Iranian-aligned militants over the weekend, hitting dozens of targets in Yemen from where Houthi rebels have launched multiple attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea.  The US said it and the UK hit 36 Houthi targets, including weapons caches and missile systems, across 13 locations in Yemen on Saturday, a day after it launched a barrage of strikes against facilities used by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.

The back-to-back assaults underlined how the Biden administration was stepping up its response to militant attacks against American forces and its interests in the region after three US soldiers were killed by a drone strike on the Jordanian-Syrian border last weekend. US President Joe Biden has repeatedly said he wants to avoid a full-blown regional conflict after the outbreak of the war between Israel and Hamas sparked hostilities across the region.

But the US strikes over the weekend underscored the delicate balance Biden is trying to maintain as he seeks to use military deterrence and diplomacy to contain the hostilities.  Washington is under pressure to respond to the Iranian-aligned militant attacks, but is calibrating its response to avoid a further escalation that would draw American troops deeper into combat.  Iranian-aligned militants have launched more than 160 rocket and drone strikes against US troops in Iraq and Syria since mid-October. 

There are about 2,500 US troops in Iraq and about 900 in Syria where they are deployed to prevent the resurgence of Isis, the jihadist group. The Houthis, meanwhile, have mounted dozens of attacks against merchant ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, severely disrupting traffic through one of the world’s most important maritime trade routes. The Yemeni rebels have also targeted US naval vessels. In a joint statement, the US, UK and six other nations said their “aim remains to de-escalate tensions and restore stability in the Red Sea”. 

“But let us reiterate our warning to Houthi leadership: we will not hesitate to continue to defend lives and the free flow of commerce in one of the world’s most critical waterways in the face of continued threats,” the statement added. A Houthi military spokesman said on Sunday that the rebel group would not be deterred, adding that the strikes on Yemen would “not pass without a response and consequences”.

The US has for weeks been responding to the myriad attacks by Iranian-aligned militants with targeted strikes in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. But on Friday it launched by far its biggest assault of the past three months — and the first to target facilities linked to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards — after the three American soldiers were killed in a drone strike on their base.  The US attack hit 85 targets at seven facilities in Iraq and Syria, according to Washington, in the first of what Biden had warned would be a series of retaliatory strikes in response to the deaths of the US soldiers.


Iran and Iraq, which said 16 people, including civilians, were killed in Friday’s attacks, condemned the US action and warned it could trigger greater instability in the region.  Iran’s foreign ministry said on Sunday the wave of US strikes over the weekend “contributes to chaos, insecurity and instability”. Tehran has said the Islamic republic does not want direct conflict with the US and Israel, or a regional war. Iran insists the militant groups it backs have been acting independently, but also praises their actions, while chastising Israel and the US. 

Tehran has not reported any casualties in the US strikes or made any threats to respond. “Iran’s strategic policy has been no war with the US, and it has definitely not changed,” said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, an Iranian former reformist vice-president. The US, sometimes acting with the UK, began striking Houthi targets on January 11, but the rebel group has continued its attacks on merchant shipping and US naval vessels.

Both the Houthis and the militants in Iraq and Syria are part of Iran’s so-called Axis of Resistance. They say their attacks are in response to Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza, which has killed more than 27,000 people, according to Palestinian officials.

Hizbollah, the Lebanese movement that is Iran’s most powerful proxy, has also exchanged almost daily fire with Israeli forces across Israel’s northern border amid fear those clashes could escalate into a full-blown conflict. The Israel-Hamas war erupted after the Palestinian militant group’s October 7 attack on southern Israel killed about 1,200 people, according to Israel.

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