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US troops are on the ground in Yemen for offensive against al-Qaida militants

THE WASHINGTON POST

By THOMAS GIBBONS-NEFF | The Washington Post | Published: August 4, 2017

A contingent of U.S. troops are involved in a Yemeni operation to push al-Qaida militants from one of their key strongholds in central Yemen, the Pentagon said Friday.

The small number of troops are there to help with "intelligence sharing," Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said, though he did not rule out that more U.S. forces could be committed to the operation in the coming weeks.

The announcement comes a day after the United Arab Emirates said in a statement that its forces, along with U.S. troops, were supporting the Yemeni military in the Shabwa governorate in a bid to oust al-Qaida fighters entrenched there. The operation is just the latest U.S.-backed move against the terrorist group, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and signals the next phase of the invigorated U.S. counterterror campaign against the militants that began shortly after President Donald Trump took office.

Since Feb. 28, the United States has conducted roughly 80 airstrikes against al-Qaida militants in Yemen, Davis said, a number that remains little changed in past weeks. U.S. Special Operations forces have also been involved in a limited number of ground operations in the country, including one that ended in the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL in January.

Aside from intelligence sharing, Davis said that the U.S. is providing midair refueling and overhead reconnaissance for forces involved in the operation. The Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, a collection of U.S. Navy ships loaded with Marines, is in the region and is probably assisting the operation with aircraft and personnel. In the past, amphibious groups much like the Bataan's have been integral in supporting U.S.-led operations against al-Qaida in Yemen.

The last large-scale operation against al-Qaida militants in Yemen was in 2015, when UAE and Yemeni forces, backed by another small element of U.S. Special Operations troops, helped seize the port city of Mukalla. The operation faced relatively little resistance as the militants mostly fled into the interior of the country.

While the United States has remained focused on striking al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a terrorist group U.S. officials see as especially potent, a Saudi-led coalition, propped up by U.S. support and munitions, has been waging a parallel war against Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen for more than two years.

In 2014, Houthi forces rose up against the Saudi-backed Yemeni government led by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and in the ensuing vacuum of the civil war, al-Qaida militants wrested control over large areas of the country.

The war has killed thousands and displaced millions, with both sides accused of targeting civilians. With limited air and port access, along with a nearly nonexistent ability to access medical care, famine and cholera have swept the country, leaving its population facing a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen in decades.

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