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Trump could intervene in Yemen war against Iran-backed rebels

Over 10,000 people have been killed since the civil war in Yemen began [AFP]

Date of publication: 29 March, 2017

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The US is considering deepening its role in Yemen's conflict by more directly aiding its Gulf allies battling Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.
Donald Trump's administration is looking to take on a bigger role in Yemen's conflict, Reuters reported on Wednesday, citing US officials.

Washington seeks to review its role Yemen and increase support to Gulf allies fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels through providing new assistance, including sharing intelligence.

There is no indication that the Trump administration is considering launching airstrikes on Houthi targets, despite recently giving the CIA new powers to conduct drone strikes on targets in the Middle East.

An increased support to the Saudi-led coalition - which has come under intense international scrutiny - marks a shift from former US President Barack Obama's position on limiting US role in the Yemeni civil war.

Critics have warned current US role in the conflict, which includes arms sales to Saudi Arabia and refuelling of coalition jets, already gives Washington some blame over civilian deaths.

"The US should not escalate our military involvement in a civil war in Yemen halfway around the world without any explanation by the president of what we are doing there and what is our strategy," Reuters reported Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California, as saying.

The US already targets al-Qaeda in Yemen with airstrikes on Abyan and the neighbouring provinces of Shabwa and Baida.

More than two years of civil war in Yemen between government forces and Iran-backed rebels who control the capital have created a power vacuum which al-Qaeda has exploited to consolidate its presence in the south and east.

Over 10,000 people have been killed since the war in Yemen began, most of them civilians, according to World Heath Organization figures. 

Pentagon enjoys greater leeway

Since Trump assumed office, the Pentagon has been enjoying greater freedom to run its wars the way it wants – without constantly seeking White House approval on important decisions.

While many in the US military may appreciate the increase autonomy, critics charge it is raising civilian death rates.

Nowhere has the shift been more visible than in the fight against the Islamic State [IS] group in northern Syria, where under Barack Obama even minor tweaks to US plans underwent exhaustive White House scrutiny.

Since Trump's inauguration, the Marine Corps has brought an artillery battery into Syria, and the Army has flowed in hundreds of Rangers, bringing the total number of US forces there to almost 1,000.

Observers are also calling into question whether the Pentagon is allowing civilian casualties to mount

Commanders are weighing the possibility of deploying hundreds more, and the Pentagon this week announced it had provided artillery support and airlifted local forces behind enemy lines in a bid to seize a strategic dam.

Trump has faced criticism for his hands-off approach, especially after he approved a special operations raid in Yemen that went horribly wrong, leading to the death of a Navy SEAL, multiple civilians including children and a crashed helicopter.

Though the White House insisted the raid yielded vital intelligence and was a "successful operation by all standards," critics said the military had been rash to execute the mission.

Observers are also calling into question whether the Pentagon is allowing civilian casualties to mount. 

Military officials vehemently deny this and stress that civilian safety is a top priority in approving any strike.

Airwars, a London-based collective of journalists and researchers, said on Friday it had become so overwhelmed tracking civilian deaths allegedly caused by US and coalition planes that it has stopped tracking Russian strikes.

"The decision to temporarily suspend our Russia strike assessments has been a very difficult one to take," Airwars director Chris Woods said.

"Moscow is still reportedly killing hundreds of civilians in Syria every month. But with coalition casualty claims escalating so steeply - and with very limited Airwars resources - we believe our key focus at present needs to be on the US-led alliance."

The Pentagon has acknowledged at least 220 civilians have been unintentionally killed since operations to defeat IS began in late summer 2014. Airwars estimates the real number to be more than ten times that.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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