U.S. Boosts Aid in Saudi-Led Fight To Defeat Rebel Force in Yemen

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Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri speaks to the media in the Saudi capital Thursday.
Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri speaks to the media in the Saudi capital Thursday.

Move comes as Saudi-led coalition takes full control of airspace after airstrikes targeting Houthi rebelsThe U.S. military is preparing to expand its aid to Saudi Arabia in its air campaign against rebel forces in Yemen by providing more intelligence, bombs and aerial refueling missions for planes carrying out airstrikes there, American officials said Friday.

The development comes as the Saudi Arabia-led coalition took full control of Yemeni airspace after two days of airstrikes targeting the Houthi rebels, who have seized control of the country’s capital and government, a Saudi Defense Ministry official said.

The Saudis said they didn’t plan to deploy ground troops but were coordinating with forces in Yemen who support returning to power the country’s president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is backed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

The campaign, dubbed “Decisive Storm,” has raised fears that Yemen’s internal conflict could devolve into a regional battle for supremacy, pitting predominantly Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia against Shiite Iran and its allies, which support the Shiite-linked Houthis.

While Iranian leaders including President Hasan Rouhani have condemned the intervention, top Sunni clerics from Saudi Arabia and Lebanon on Friday added their voices to support the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Shiite group Hezbollah in Lebanon, said in a speech Friday that Saudi Arabia had held sway in Yemen for decades and treated Yemenis “with disrespect.” Condemning the “Saudi-American attack,” he said: “It is the right of Yemen’s people, who are brave and resilient, to fight and resist, and they will succeed.”

Saudi officials have asked the U.S. to provide air tankers to refuel planes taking part in bombing Houthi forces in neighboring Yemen—and for more American-made bombs to continue with the strikes, the officials said. The U.S. is preparing to provide the Saudis with more help once the requests are approved in Washington, these people said.

The Saudi appeals come as the U.S. is deepening its support for the fight by providing military planners with vital intelligence from surveillance flights to help choose targets for the airstrikes in Yemen, officials said. American military planners are using live intelligence feeds from surveillance flights over Yemen to help Saudi Arabia decide what and where to bomb, U.S. officials said.

Under the plan, the U.S. would beef up its role in a new military coordination center set up with the Saudis and other countries in the region taking part in the evolving operation. The center has become the focal point for military planning and a handful of Americans are currently taking part, officials said. That number is expected to grow.

Saudi Arabia joined four other Persian Gulf countries and other Arab allies in a military campaign on Thursday against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who have overrun most of the country in the past seven months.

Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, a Defense Ministry adviser, said in a press briefing that the coalition hit Houthi targets including air defenses and fighter jets, leaving them in complete control of the country’s airspace.

Yemen’s military is split between factions loyal toMr. Hadi, others following his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh and a third, neutral contingent, officials say.

“We are coordinating with the legitimate government in Aden, popular committees and some brigades of the Yemeni army,” Gen. Asiri said.

One military commander loyal to Mr. Hadi in the southern port city of Aden, an area where the president enjoys support among local security forces, said top Hadi-allied military officials were coordinating with Saudi intelligence on Houthi targets and resupply routes.

Brig. Gen. Asiri said there was no current plan to add ground troops, according to the state-controlled news agency SPA, but he said Saudi and allied ground forces would be deployed if necessary.

Saudi Arabia carried out the first airstrikes on Thursday, but it was joined later by its allied neighbor the United Arab Emirates, Brig. Gen. Asiri said. The main coalition members are Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Egypt. Numerous other countries have pledged their support.

On Friday, strikes by Saudi Arabian Apache helicopters hit Houthi targets in the north, Brig. Gen. Asiri said. Coalition warplanes also hit the Al Anad air base in the south. They took out Houthi fighter jets and air defenses, he said.

The strikes were the culmination of months of instability in Yemen amid the rise of the Houthis.

The Houthis, who hail from northern Yemen and adhere to the Zaidi offshoot of Shiite Islam, spread their control southward last year,reaching the capital San’a in September. They took over government in San’a in February, leading Mr. Hadi to flee to Aden.

The United Nations, the U.S. and other world powers called on the Houthis to leave San’a and have stuck by Mr. Hadi as the country’s legitimate leader.

Over the past week, the Houthis spread further southward toward Mr. Hadi’s redoubt in Aden. On Wednesday, they took over the city’s international airport and forced Mr. Hadi to flee again, this time by boat to Oman and then to Saudi Arabia, where he arrived on Thursday.

On Friday Mr. Hadi was met by President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh, according to Egyptian state media. He is expected to take part in an Arab League summit on Saturday as the official delegate for Yemen. Arab foreign ministers have agreed to a draft resolution ahead of the summit that would create a pan-Arab military force, according to the U.A.E.’s state news agency.

As the air campaign continued, so did fighting on the ground between the Houthis and forces aligned with Mr. Hadi. At least five Houthi militants were killed and several more injured after a land mine planted by a pro-Hadi fighter in the southern Lahj province exploded Friday, said two security officials.

Yemen’s deteriorating security situation has pushed the country ever closer to an all-out civil war, while giving room for terror groups to thrive.

U.S. officials fear that militant groups will seek to fill the security vacuum. Yemen is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which it considers the world’s most potent al Qaeda offshoot. On March 20, three bombings claimed by an affiliate of Islamic State killed more than 150 people, the biggest toll for a single coordinated attack in Yemen’s history.

U.S. special forces that had been cooperating with Mr. Hadi to carry out drone strikes against AQAP from a southern air base left the country amid the recent instability, jeopardizing a signature element of President Barack Obama’s regional counterterrorism policy. The U.S. and about a dozen other countries also closed their embassies last month.

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