Saudi-led air war in Ye­men un­set­tles the U.S.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Brian Bennett, W.J. Hen­ni­gan and Alexan­dra Zavis

WASH­ING­TON — Con­cerned about re­ports of hun­dreds of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties, Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials are in­creas­ingly un­easy about the U.S. in­volve­ment in the Saudi-led air war against rebel mili­tias in Ye­men, open­ing a po­ten­tial rift be­tween Wash­ing­ton and its ally in Riyadh.

Backed by U.S. in­tel­li­gence, air re­fu­el­ing and other sup­port, Saudi war­planes have con­ducted wide­spread bomb­ing of Ye­meni vil­lages and towns since March 26 but have failed to dis­lodge the Houthi rebels who have over­run much of the Arab world’s poor­est na­tion since last fall.

Al Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula, widely re­garded as the ter­ror­ist net­work’s most lethal fran­chise, has cap­i­tal­ized on the chaos by sharply ex­pand­ing its reach. Fighters loyal to the group claimed con­trol Thurs­day of a mil­i­tary base and other key fa­cil­i­ties near Mukalla, an Ara­bian Sea port in south­ern Ye­men.

Saudi of­fi­cials said they are not tar­get­ing ar­eas with Al Qaeda fighters, how­ever, and are fo­cus­ing only on the Houthis, a Shi­ite Mus­lim mi­nor­ity whom they view as prox­ies for Iran, Saudi Ara-

bia’s re­gional ri­val.

With the coun­try slid­ing into civil war, the United Na­tions spe­cial en­voy to Ye­men, Ja­mal Beno­mar, re­signed un­der pres­sure Wed­nes­day. Of­fi­cials said the Moroc­can-born diplo­mat had lost the sup­port of Saudi Ara­bia and its Persian Gulf al­lies.

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials, who pride them­selves on the care they take to avoid civil­ian ca­su­al­ties, have watched with grow­ing alarm as Saudi airstrikes have hit what the U.N. this week called “dozens of public build­ings,” in­clud­ing hos­pi­tals, schools, res­i­den­tial ar­eas and mosques. The U.N. said at least 364 civil­ians have been killed in the cam­paign.

Although U.S. per­son­nel don’t pick the bomb­ing tar­gets, Amer­i­cans are work­ing be­side Saudi mil­i­tary of­fi­cials to check the ac­cu­racy of tar­get lists in a joint op­er­a­tions cen­ter in Riyadh, de­fense of­fi­cials said. The Pen­tagon has ex­pe­dited de­liv­ery of GPS guided “smart” bomb kits to the Saudi air force to re­plen­ish sup­plies.

The U.S. role was qui­etly stepped up last week af­ter the civil­ian death toll rose sharply. The num­ber of U.S. per­son­nel was in­creased from 12 to 20 in the op­er­a­tions cen­ter to help vet tar­gets and to per­form more pre­cise cal­cu­la­tions of bomb blast ar­eas to help avoid civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.

U.S. re­con­nais­sance drones now send live video feeds of po­ten­tial tar­gets and of dam­age af­ter the bombs hit. The Air Force also be­gan daily re­fu­el­ing flights last week to top off Saudi and United Arab Emi­rates fighter jets in midair, out­side Ye­men’s bor­ders, so they can quickly re­turn to the war.

Saudi of­fi­cials say their goal is to pres­sure the Houthis to dis­arm and to re­in­state Pres­i­dent Abdu Rabu Man­sour Hadi. That would re­quire the Houthis to give up vir­tu­ally all their gains since they cap­tured the cap­i­tal, Sana, in Septem­ber and forced Hadi into ex­ile in March.

Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, com­man­der of U.S. forces in the Mid­dle East, was in Riyadh, the Saudi cap­i­tal, on Thurs­day to con­sult with the king­dom’s lead­ers on their mil­i­tary plans.

A U.S. of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity in dis­cussing brief­ings on the air war, called it a “dis­as­ter,” say­ing the Saudis don’t have a “re­al­is­tic endgame” for the bomb­ing.

U.S. of­fi­cials are es­pe­cially con­cerned about Al Qaeda’s reemer­gence in Ye­men af­ter years of drone strikes and other coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions had pushed them into the shad­ows. A spe­cial U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism team was forced to aban­don the coun­try last month.

Fighters loyal to Al Qaeda claimed con­trol of an air­port, an oil ter­mi­nal and a mil­i­tary base out­side Mukalla, cap­i­tal of Hadhra­maut prov­ince, a strong­hold for the ter­ror­ist group. This month, the mil­i­tants robbed a bank and freed hun­dreds of in­mates from a pri­son in the city. A U.S. of­fi­cial in Wash­ing­ton con­firmed most the group’s claims.

“They are con­sol­i­dat­ing their hold of the city and will paralyze the whole coast of Hadhra­maut,” Nasser Baqa­zouz, an ac­tivist in Mukalla, told the As­so­ci­ated Press. He said gov­ern­ment troops guard­ing the air­port put up lit­tle re­sis­tance.

Ye­meni se­cu­rity of­fi­cials in Sana, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to brief the news me­dia, said com­man­ders of the mil­i­tary brigade re­spon­si­ble for pro­tect­ing the area fled.

Although they are staunch op­po­nents of Al Qaeda, the Houthis and their al­lies are caught up in fierce clashes with sup­port­ers of Hadi, who is sup­ported by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and Sunni Arab na­tions.

The White House took pains to tamp down re­ports of a rift with the Saudis, deny­ing a state­ment by Iraq’s vis­it­ing prime min­is­ter, Haider Abadi, that Pres­i­dent Obama had agreed with him that the Saudi airstrikes had gone “too far.”

Abadi did not back down but tried to play down the spat. “We have our own opin­ion on the war in Ye­men,” Abadi said at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton.

But U.S. of­fi­cials also made it clear that they are look­ing for ways to re­solve the cri­sis. They have not ruled out open­ing a line of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Houthi lead­ers, although so far in­ter­me­di­aries have been un­able to bro­ker an ar­range­ment.

The U.S. has seen in­di­ca­tions that Iran is pro­vid­ing weapons and equip­ment to the Houthis, White House Press Sec­re­tary Josh Earnest said Thurs­day.

“What con­tin­ues to be un­clear, and there is some skep­ti­cism about, is whether or not there is [Ira­nian] com­mand and con­trol of the ac­tiv­i­ties of the Houthis in Ye­men,” he said.

Earnest said the Saudis asked for help with the airstrikes, “and we have com­plied with that re­quest in the form of pro­vid­ing in­tel­li­gence and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port.”

What the U.S. “has al­ways be­lieved and con­tinue to im­press upon ev­ery­one in­volved in this sit­u­a­tion is that our goal is to try to bring about a po­lit­i­cal res­o­lu­tion to the con­flict,” he said.

At a Pen­tagon news con­fer­ence, De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter paused when asked whether the U.S. agreed with Saudi Ara­bia’s de­ci­sion to bomb Ye­men.

“Well, we sup­ported it,” he said.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Houthis aspire to re­store an an­cient em­pire “that in­cluded all of Ye­men and parts of south­ern Saudi Ara­bia.”

“The Saudis are right to be con­cerned,” he said.

The is­sue is sure to be on the agenda when Obama meets lead­ers of the Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil — Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emi­rates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — at the pres­i­den­tial retreat at Camp David next month. He ini­tially in­vited them to ad­dress their con­cerns about a nu­clear deal with Iran.

An­a­lysts see U.S. sup­port for the Saudi in­ter­ven­tion as chiefly an at­tempt to main­tain close ties with Riyadh, es­pe­cially in re­gard to the emerg­ing nu­clear deal with Iran. Saudi of­fi­cials have avoided public crit­i­cism of the April 2 pre­lim­i­nary deal.

“We’re do­ing this not be­cause we think it would be good for Ye­men pol­icy; we’re do­ing it be­cause we think it’s good for U.S.-Saudi re­la­tions,” said Ilan Gold­en­berg, a for­mer Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who is now with the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity.

Mo­hammed Huwais AFP/Getty Images

IN SANA, Ye­men, tribal gun­men loyal to the Houthis protest a U.N. arms em­bargo against the rebels. Saudiled airstrikes in Ye­men have hit “dozens of public build­ings,” in­clud­ing schools and mosques, the U.N. said.

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