The United States and a handful of its allies on Thursday carried out military strikes against a wide swath of targets in Yemen controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthi militia, a U.S. official said, in an expansion of the war in the Middle East that the Biden administration, for three months, had sought to avoid.
The American-led strikes came in response to more than two dozen Houthi drone and missile attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea since November, and after warnings to the Houthis in the past week from the Biden administration and several international allies of serious “consequences” if the salvos did not stop.
But the Houthis defied that ultimatum, vowing to continue their attacks in what they say is a protest against Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. On Tuesday, American and British warships intercepted one of the largest barrage of Houthi drone and missile strikes yet, an assault that U.S. and other Western military officials said was the last straw.
Britain joined the United States in the strikes against the Houthi targets, the U.S. official said.
The Netherlands, Australia, Canada and Bahrain also were expected to participate, providing logistics, intelligence and other support, according to U.S. officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters.
It was unclear whether the allied strikes would deter the Houthis from continuing their attacks, which have forced some of the world’s largest shipping companies to reroute vessels away from the Red Sea, creating delays and extra costs felt around the world through higher prices for oil and other imported goods.
The Houthis — whose military capabilities were honed by eight years of fighting against a Saudi-led coalition — have greeted the prospect of war with the United States with open delight. On Wednesday, before the strike, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, the militia’s leader, threatened to meet an American attack with a fierce response.
“We, the Yemeni people, are not among those who are afraid of America,” he said in a televised speech. “We are comfortable with a direct confrontation with the Americans.”
Some American allies in the Middle East, including the Gulf nations of Qatar and Oman, had raised concerns that strikes against the Houthis could spiral out of control and drag the region into a deeper conflict with other Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Tehran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq.
“We never see a military action as a resolution,” Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, said in a news conference on Sunday, stressing that Qatar would prefer to see a diplomatic solution bring an end to Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.
Administration officials have sought to separate the Houthi attacks from the conflict in Gaza, and to cast as illegitimate Houthi claims that they are acting to support the Palestinians. The officials are emphasizing that difference so that they can try to contain a wider war even as they ramp up their specific response to the Houthi attacks.
Houthi officials say that the sole goal of their attacks is to force Israel to halt its military campaign and to allow the free flow of aid into Gaza. They claim they pose no threat to global shipping.
Vivian Nereim contributed reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.