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The US and the UK are preparing strikes against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, after the Yemen-based militants ignored western warnings and stepped up attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea.
In London, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak convened a call of his cabinet ministers at 7:45pm on Thursday evening following a meeting of Britain’s National Security Council, according to Whitehall insiders.
Sunak was preparing to authorise strikes against Houthi targets, with Britain acting as part of a US-led military coalition, the insiders said.
The Pentagon has drawn up options for targeted strikes on Houthi positions in Yemen, including missile launch sites and weapons depots, according to US officials.
Pentagon press secretary Major General Pat Ryder on Thursday said he would not speculate on any future operations. Ryder said that, as of last week, five US and UK naval vessels were in the Red Sea and that other allied warships, including from France, are co-ordinating with the US-led coalition.
The military preparations come after weeks of escalating attacks by the Tehran-backed Houthis on commercial ships seeking to transit the Red Sea and Suez Canal.
Iranian forces on Thursday seized an oil tanker off the coast of Oman, and Houthi forces fired an anti-ship missile from Yemen into international shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden.
“This activity is contrary to international law,” Ryder said. “It’s another example of Iranian malign activity threatening security and stability in the region.”
US Central Command said it was the 27th attack by the Houthis on international shipping in the past two months, causing acute disruption along a critical maritime trade route. More than 100 strikes on US and allied positions have occurred in Iraq and Syria, Ryder said.
Thursday’s attacks came despite a warning issued last week by the US, UK and other allies, which said ongoing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea were “illegal, unacceptable and profoundly destabilising”.
Rather than be cowed by the statement, however, Houthi forces — which western officials describe as the Iranian proxy Tehran has the least control of — launched one of their largest barrages of missiles and drones into the Red Sea on Tuesday. US and UK warships shot them down.
The Iranian-backed rebels, which control northern Yemen, have become one of the most active factions in Tehran’s so-called Axis of Resistance since the war between Israel and Hamas erupted on October 7.
“We are all agreed and in one voice that this cannot continue,” Grant Shapps, the UK defence secretary who has been in regular contact with regional allies, said on Wednesday. “We won’t allow it to continue.”
The preparations for strikes follow weeks of criticism from US lawmakers who have said the Joe Biden administration has not responded to the Yemen-based militants forcefully enough.
Many oil tankers and container ships are avoiding the Red Sea route and the Suez Canal, opting instead for a longer — and more costly — voyage around the Horn of Africa.
Nearly 15 per cent of global sea trade passes through the Red Sea, including 8 per cent of grain trade, 12 per cent of seaborne oil and 8 per cent of seaborne liquefied natural gas, according to last week’s joint statement.
For Sunak, the escalation is potentially the most serious military action involving British forces since he became prime minister in October 2022, even if the UK is expected to play a junior role in a US-led operation.
Kim Darroch, a former UK national security adviser, said: “Generally we contribute about 10 per cent of any joint operation. The French would normally be asked if they want to get involved.
“The important thing is that we are part of any operation, rather than how much hardware we deliver.”
Washington has deployed hundreds of more troops to the Middle East since the start of Israel’s conflict with Hamas in October, and has struck Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for attacks on US bases in the region.
The Pentagon also deployed two aircraft carrier strike groups to the Middle East, while Biden has explicitly warned Tehran not to escalate the conflict further.
The UK has two warships in the region; one is the HMS Diamond, which shot down seven of the 18 drones and missiles that the Houthis fired on Tuesday from areas that the group controls in Yemen.
Should the US-led military operation go ahead, deploying British fighter jets to hit Houthi bases is thought to be one option. Firing Tomahawk cruise missiles from UK submarines is believed to be another option.
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