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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

US strikes Houthi targets in Yemen for a third time

Cargo ships wait in the Red Sea near the opening of the Suez Canal, on March 29, 2021. The United States’ latest military strike against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen left the White House grappling with how to stop a battle-hardened foe from disrupting shipping lanes critical for global trade. (Sima Diab/The New York Times)

By Eric Schmitt and Saeed Al-Batati

The United States carried out a new military strike against Houthi ballistic missiles in Yemen earlier this week, the U.S. military said, but the latest salvo against the Iran-backed group left the White House grappling with how to stop a battle-hardened foe from disrupting shipping lanes critical for global trade.

The strikes Tuesday, the third overall against the group since a U.S.-led air and naval barrage hit dozens of targets last week, destroyed four missiles that the Pentagon’s Central Command said posed an imminent threat to merchant vessels and Navy ships traveling through the Red Sea and nearby waters.

But the preemptive U.S. strike also came on the third day in a row that the Houthis have defied the Biden administration and its allies by firing missiles at passing ships, damaging a Greek-owned cargo vessel Tuesday. The Houthis damaged a U.S.-owned commercial ship Monday after attempting to hit an American warship the day before.

“We’re not looking for a war; we’re not looking to expand this,” John F. Kirby, the National Security Council spokesperson, told reporters Tuesday, adding, “We will continue to defend against them and counter them as appropriate.”

That leaves the administration with difficult choices. President Joe Biden could order another blitz of strikes against Houthi air defenses, weapons depots, and facilities for launching and producing an array of missiles and drones, but analysts say that would risk widening the war even more. Or he could settle for more limited tit-for-tat exchanges, like Tuesday’s strike, but that would not necessarily resolve the threat to commercial ships, analysts say.

Neither approach has fazed the Houthis. Vowing solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the group’s leaders have said they will continue their attacks in what they say is a protest against Israel’s military campaign in the territory.

Kirby defended the strikes on Thursday and Friday that American and British attack planes and warships carried out against more than 60 targets using some 150 precision-guided bombs and missiles.

“The strike was designed to degrade and disrupt their military activity, their ability to store, launch and guide these missiles for their targets, as well as the drones that they have launched,” he said. “We believe that we had good effects.”

A confidential Pentagon analysis of the first barrage suggests otherwise. While the U.S.-led strikes damaged or destroyed about 90% of the targets that were struck, the Houthis retained about three-quarters of their ability to fire missiles and drones at ships, two U.S. officials said Saturday.

The damage estimates are the first detailed assessments of the strikes against nearly 30 locations in Yemen last week. They reveal the serious challenges the Biden administration and its allies face as they try to deter the Houthis from retaliating, secure critical shipping routes between Europe and Asia and contain the spread of regional conflict.

“There’s a limited amount you can do with just an air campaign,” said Adam Clements, a retired U.S. Army attaché for Yemen, who noted that the Houthis have survived a near decadelong air war with Saudi Arabia. “It’s very difficult to neutralize this wide array of threats.”

Residents in the area near the latest U.S. airstrike said Monday that they saw Houthi missiles being fired from remote and mountainous parts of Mukayras, a Houthi-controlled town in central Yemen, on Friday and Monday.

The missiles launched from Mukayras are believed to have been aimed at ships south of Aden or in the Bab el-Mandeb strait, while missiles fired from the western cities of Hodeida and Taiz targeted ships south of the Red Sea or off Yemen’s coast.

The Houthis so far have been undeterred.

On Tuesday, the Houthis fired an anti-ship ballistic missile into the Red Sea, hitting the Zografia, a Maltese-flagged, Greek-owned bulk carrier, Central Command said. The ship’s crew reported no injuries. The vessel remained seaworthy, and continued its journey, the military said.

A Houthi spokesperson, Yahya Sarea, said in a statement that the group had targeted the ship with “a number of missiles” because it was “sailing to the ports of occupied Palestine” and that the ship was directly hit.

The Houthis “will continue to take all procedures to defend and attack as part of its legitimate right to defend our dear Yemen, and we confirm our continued solidarity with the wronged Palestinian people,” he said.

The Houthis have repeatedly said that they are acting in support of the people of Gaza, though many of the group’s targets have had no clear connection to Israel.

Identifying Houthi targets is proving to be challenging for U.S. forces. American and other Western intelligence agencies have not spent significant time or resources in recent years collecting data on the location of Houthi weapons sites, the two U.S. officials said.

That all changed after the Hamas attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, and the Israeli military’s responding ground campaign in Gaza.

U.S. analysts have been rushing to catch up and catalog potential Houthi targets every day, the officials said. The Houthis are an agile guerrilla fighting force and have been for decades, skilled in moving and hiding weapons, equipment and supplies. Hitting pop-up targets on short notice, such as Tuesday’s strike, a practice the military calls dynamic targeting, would probably be an important part of any additional strikes that Biden and his commanders might order.

Senior administration officials and Pentagon aides say they are bracing for much larger retaliatory attacks from the Houthis, and American commanders are preparing a series of escalating responses, senior U.S. military officials said.

“We know they still have some capability,” said Kirby, a retired Navy admiral. “They still have time to make the right choice, which is to stop these reckless attacks.”

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