Was a U.S. Ship Attacked by a Missile off the Coast of Yemen… or Not? The Pentagon Can’t Give Straight Answers

The U.S. military has been backing war crimes in Yemen for the past 18 months.

By Sarah Lazare, AlterNet

Photo Credit: US Navy Photo

On October 8, the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition launched an airstrike against a packed funeral hall in the Yemen capital of Sanaa, killing at least 140 people and wounding more than 500. The weapon used to carry out the mass killing was a 500-pound laser-guided bomb that was manufactured in the United States, according to human rights organizations and journalists. As journalists Ken Klippenstein and Paul Gottinger recently reported for AlterNet, there is reason to suspect that the U.S. may have directly assisted in the bombing.

Bushra Al-Fusail, a Yemeni peace activist currently living in the United States, recently spoke with her parents, who live in Sanaa. “They are saying that, over in Sanaa, there is so much sadness,” Al-Fusail told AlterNet. “Everywhere you go, people are so scared. It’s one of the biggest disasters since the war started.”

As with the funeral bombing, the U.S. has had a direct hand in the steady atrocities inflicted on civilians in Yemen since the war began 18 months ago. To date, the Obama administration has consistently assisted the Saudi-led coalition in identifying bomb targets and refueling warplanes. The U.S. military has deployed its warships to enforce a naval blockade that has cut off vital food aid, contributing to a humanitarian emergency that affects at least half of the country’s population. Since March 2015, Washington approved more than $22.2 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia (not all of it has arrived yet).

The U.S. deployed troops last spring, ostensibly to fight Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But all signs suggest that war has only strengthened AQAP’s foothold on the southern coast, and there is even evidence that elements of the Saudi coalition have fought alongside AQAP combatants.

The conflict has left more than 6,800 dead and civilian infrastructure decimated in the poorest country in the Middle East. While atrocities are being committed on all sides, human rights organizations and the United Nations have repeatedly warned that the vast majority of civilian deaths and injuries are at the hands of the Saudi coalition. Throughout the campaign, coalition bombs have struckfactories, weddings and even a center for the blind. Meanwhile, U.S.-manufactured cluster bomb attacks have devastated civilian villages. Obama administration officials have privately expressed concern that the U.S. government could be implicated in war crimes, as revealed by a Reuters investigation released earlier this month. Human Rights Watch says it has evidence of at least 58 coalition bombings that constitute war crimes.

Despite this troubling track record, U.S. officials recently invoked self-defense to justify ratcheting up participation in the war. Last week, the U.S. military launched multiple bombings targeting Houthi-held territory within Yemen, allegedly in retaliation for “attempted missile attacks in recent days against the USS Mason and other vessels in the Red Sea and the Bab-el-Mandeb,” as Pentagon spokesperson John Cook put it October 13. Cook called the bombings “self-defense strikes.” Notably, no U.S. vessels were struck.

Houthi rebels denied firing at the USS Mason, issuing a statement which declares, “Those claims are baseless.”

Speaking with reporters in Baltimore Saturday, Navy Admiral John Richardsonclaimed, without presenting evidence, that the USS Mason “once again appears to have come under attack in the Red Sea, again from coastal defense cruise missiles fired from the coast of Yemen.” Now it seems that even those claims are wearing thin, as revealed in the following exchange from a press briefingdelivered by Pentagon spokesperson Peter Cook:

Q: Sorry, if I may just—I have another question. What happened to the USS Mason on Saturday of the coast of Yemen?  Do you have any more clarity on that?

MR. COOK: Yeah, as we indicated over the weekend, the Mason was operating in international waters off the—in the Red Sea, off the Yemen Coast, were once again, it detected a missile threat and the crew responded accordingly, deployed counter-measures as appropriate, and the good news is that the ship was not harmed and the crew is—the crew is fine, also unharmed.

Q: So, at this point you think there were missiles fired, or—?

MR. COOK: We are still assessing the situation. There are still some aspects of this that we are trying to clarify for ourselves, given the threat to our — potential threat to our people. And so this is still a situation we’re assessing closely.

As Adam Johnson recently pointed out in Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, major media outlets have been quick to parrot the U.S. military’s claims that the Houthis are responsible for “first blood.” Yet Pentagon officials are now wavering on at least one public claim about alleged Houthi missile attacks on the USS Mason. When the last 18 months of war are taken into consideration, U.S. claims to self-defense fall apart further.

With parties slated to hold a 72-hour ceasefire starting Wednesday, Al-Fusail says now is an important time to have do an honest accounting of the modern U.S. role in Yemen, in hopes of stemming further escalation. “They say they are doing self-defense, but they are killing,” she said. “Most people don’t even know, and the ones that do have the wrong information.”

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