- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Defense Department on Thursday deflected claims that Iranian forces may have played a role in the recent attacks on U.S. warships off the coast of Yemen by anti-government rebels in the country, amid rising fears the United States may find itself drawn into a larger role in Yemen’s chaotic civil war.

“We’re assessing everything that took place with regard to the attempted strikes against our forces. What we know is where they originated from and we have responded,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook.

U.S. forces on Wednesday launched multiple strikes against targets inside Yemeni territory controlled by Houthi rebels, an Iranian-backed Sunni ethnic group in the country that ousted former President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi from power last year.

Since then, Houthi forces have been battling forces loyal to current Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose government forces are backed by an Arab coalition spearheaded by Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration has provided intelligence and nonlethal air support to the anti-Houthi coalition, but Wednesday was the first direct action taken by U.S. forces against the rebels.

Human rights groups have criticized the U.S. for providing support for the Saudi-led air campaign, saying many of the strikes — including one this week that targeted a large funeral for a prominent Houthi leader — have killed civilians.

The type of advanced weaponry and guidance systems needed to launch the missile strikes against the USS Mason fueled speculation that Tehran may have been involved in the attacks.

Sharaf Loqman, a spokesman for a part of the Yemeni army fighting alongside the Houthis, denied the rebels fired on the U.S. ships, saying the military never targets ships outside territorial waters. He called the accusations an “American farce to find a reason to interfere in Yemen directly after failure of the Saudis,” according to The Associated Press.

Yemen’s state news agency, Saba, which is under Houthis’ control, also carried a denial, saying the accusations aim to create a pretext “to escalate assaults and cover up the continuous crimes committed by the aggression against the Yemeni people.”

Iran’s Tasnim News Agency reported that Tehran ordered the Iranian Navy’s 44th Flotilla into Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the waterway off the Yemeni coast where the Mason was attacked.

Mr. Cook on Thursday declined to comment on the Iranian deployment or the country’s possible involvement in the attacks.

“Iran has played a role and has been supportive of the Houthi rebels more broadly in the conflict in Yemen,” Mr. Cook said. But Wednesday night’s counterstrikes into Yemen were explicitly in response to the attacks on U.S. ships.

“We [wanted] to make crystal clear that if you threaten our forces we will be prepared to respond, as we did in this case,” said Mr. Cook.

State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said the sites “were specifically targeted in order to take out or in some way limit the ability for the Houthis to carry out these strikes.”

That said, he did note U.S. commanders remained uncertain as to who carried out the cruise missile attack.

Up until the first attack on the Mason late last week, Houthi forces had not shown it had the kind of weaponry displayed against the American destroyer. The cruise missiles fired at the Mason were reportedly the same type of weapon that crippled a United Arab Emirates warship that was passing through the same contested waterway earlier this month.

“We don’t know who was pulling the trigger [but] if somebody else is carrying this out in Houthi-controlled territory, then I would encourage the Houthis to try and get that under control,” he said.

Guided missiles fired from the USS Nitze, stationed in the Red Sea, destroyed three radar installations in Houthi territory near Al Hudaydah, roughly 180 miles southwest of the Yemeni capital of Sana, late Wednesday night.

The successful strikes were in response to two separate cruise missile attacks against the USS Mason, an Arleigh Burke-class ship operating off the coast of Yemen, over the last two weeks.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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