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The US and UK are preparing strikes against Iran-backed Houthi rebels after Yemen-based militants ignored Western warnings and stepped up attacks on merchant ships in the Red Sea.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak approved the strikes against the Houthis after a meeting of his cabinet ministers on Thursday evening, a government insider familiar with the decision said.
Any British military action greenlit by Sunak after cabinet approval would be part of a US-led military alliance, insiders said. Downing Street declined to comment.
The Houthis, who control northern Yemen, have become one of the most radical factions in Tehran's so-called axis of opposition since war broke out on October 7 between Israel and Iran-backed Hamas.
Even as President Joe Biden tries to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from turning into a regional conflict, continued attacks by Houthi militias — even after an international warning issued last week — have forced the White House to recalculate.
According to US officials, the Pentagon has drawn up options for targeted strikes on Houthi positions in Yemen, which include missile launch sites and weapons depots.
Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said Thursday that he would not speculate on future actions. Ryder said that as of last week, five US and UK naval ships were in the Red Sea and warships from other allies, including France, were coordinating with the US-led coalition.
The military preparations come after weeks of intensified attacks by the Houthis on merchant ships trying to cross the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
Iranian forces seized an oil tanker off the coast of Oman on Thursday, and Houthi forces fired an anti-ship missile from Yemen into international shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden.
“This action is against international law,” Ryder said. “This is yet another example of Iranian malign activity that threatens security and stability in the region.”
The U.S. Central Command said it was the 27th attack by the Houthis on international shipping in the past two months, severely disrupting a vital maritime trade route. Ryder said there have been more than 100 strikes against the United States and allies in Iraq and Syria.
Thursday's strikes came despite warnings from the US, UK and other allies last week that the ongoing Houthi offensive in the Red Sea was “illegal, unacceptable and deeply destabilizing”.
Rather than cower, however, the Houthi forces — which Western officials describe as an Iranian proxy that Tehran has little control over — launched one of their largest ever launches of missiles and drones into the Red Sea on Tuesday. American and British warships shot them down.
“We all agree, with one voice, that this cannot continue,” UK Defense Secretary Grant Shabbs, who has been in regular contact with regional allies, said on Wednesday. “We will not allow that to continue.”
Many oil tankers and container ships avoid the Red Sea route and the Suez Canal and opt for the longer – and more expensive – journey around the Horn of Africa.
According to last week's joint statement, 15 percent of global maritime trade passes through the Red Sea, including 8 percent of grain trade, 12 percent of seaborne oil and 8 percent of seaborne liquefied natural gas.
For Sunak, the escalation is likely to be the most serious military operation involving British forces since he took office as prime minister in October 2022, even if the UK is expected to play a junior role in the US-led operation.
Former UK National Security Adviser Kim Darroch said: “Normally we contribute 10 per cent to any joint operation. The French are usually asked if they want to get involved.
“The important thing is that we are a part of any operation, rather than how much hardware we provide.”
Washington has deployed hundreds more troops to the Middle East since Israel's conflict with the Palestinian militant group Hamas began in October, and has hit Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for attacks on US bases.
The Pentagon has also deployed two aircraft carrier strike groups to the Middle East, while Biden has openly warned Tehran not to escalate.
The UK has two warships in the region, including HMS Diamond, which shot down seven of 18 drones and missiles launched by the Houthis from areas controlled by the group in Yemen on Tuesday.
Deploying British warplanes to attack Houthi bases is thought to be one option if the US-led military operation is to continue. Another option is believed to be firing Tomahawk cruise missiles from UK submarines.
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