U.S. forces followed up strikes on Syria and Iraq with a new round of attacks against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, signaling that President Joe Biden is willing to deepen U.S. involvement in the region’s spreading conflict.
Targeting Houthi sites at 13 locations in Yemen, the U.S. and its allies escalated their effort to destroy the militant group’s ability to attack Red Sea shipping with strikes including their hardened facilities. It marked the biggest set of strikes against the Houthis since an initial operation on Jan. 11, also carried out jointly by the U.S. and the U.K.
Supported by six other countries including Bahrain, the strikes on Saturday targeted 36 Houthi sites in all, specifically those associated with the group’s deeply-buried weapons storage facilities, missile systems and launchers, air defense systems and radars, the Pentagon said in a statement.
“These precision strikes are intended to disrupt and degrade the capabilities that the Houthis use to threaten global trade, and the lives of innocent mariners,” according to the Pentagon statement, which warned that “we will not hesitate to continue to defend lives and the free flow of commerce in one of the world’s most critical waterways.”
But a Houthi leader said the group wouldn’t be deterred by the new round of strikes — nor by ones to come.
“The American-British aggression against Yemen will not go unanswered,” Mohammed Al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi Political Council, said in a statement on X. “We will confront escalation with escalation.”
The targets reportedly included areas around the capital Sanaa, the port city of Hodeida and several provinces.
Houthi missile and drone attacks in the Red Sea region have disrupted global trade, raised concern of higher oil prices, prompted major shipping companies to divert carriers to longer routes and led the Biden administration to mount a naval operation along with other countries in an effort to end the threat.
The Pentagon specifically cited a dramatic attack on the Marlin Luanda, a Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker operated on behalf of trading giant Trafigura Group that was set ablaze last week in a missile attack claimed by the Houthis. The ship was carrying Russian-origin naphtha, a product used to make plastics and gasoline.
“We remain committed to protecting freedom of navigation and international commerce and holding the Houthis accountable for their illegal and unjustifiable attacks on commercial shipping and naval vessels,” the Pentagon said.
On Friday, U.S. air strikes targeted Iranian forces and militias in Iraq and Syria in what the Biden administration described as retaliation for a drone attack a week ago in northeast Jordan by an Iran-linked militant group, which killed three U.S. service members.
Iraq’s government said that civilians were among at least 16 people killed and 25 injured on its soil. “This aggressive strike will put security in Iraq and the region on the brink of an abyss,” Iraqi government spokesman Basim Al-Awadi said.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani called the U.S. air strikes a “strategic mistake” that will only worsen “tension and instability in the region.” The Russian Foreign Ministry said it would ask the U.N. Security Council to discuss the strikes as soon as possible.
The European Union’s top foreign-policy official expressed concern and urged deescalation. “We don’t have a military presence on the ground, the only thing we can do is use our diplomatic capacity to avoid this increasing reaction,” Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels.
The region has edged closer to an all-out conflict since Hamas militants struck Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking hundreds of hostages, and Israel’s government declared war on the group, deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union, in the Gaza Strip.
In Friday’s incursion, U.S. aircraft, including long-range B-1 bombers flown from the U.S., struck 85 targets at seven locations linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force and militant groups that Iran funds, according to U.S. officials.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to embark on a fifth trip to the region since the Hamas attacks on Israel. He’s expected to touch down in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank over five days.
U.S. military bases scattered across Iraq and Syria had come under attack more than 160 times since Hamas’s October attack on Israel, but the Jan. 28 fatalities were the first deaths.
The U.S. strikes targeted “logistics and munition supply chain facilities of militia groups and their IRGC sponsors who facilitated attacks against U.S. and Coalition forces,” the US Central Command said.
The U.S. blamed the deadly attack in Jordan on an Iranian-backed umbrella group known as the Islamic Resistance in Iraq. That group is part of what’s known as the Axis of Resistance, a web of anti-Israel and anti-U.S. militants in the region that encompasses groups in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, as well as Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
It also includes the Kata’ib Hezbollah militant group, which said this week that it was halting military operations in Iraq after pressure from the Iraqi government.
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