UAE's campaign for Yemen port city a test of 'Little Sparta'

The United Arab Emirates is a country better known for oil riches and skyscraper skylines, but right now it is prosecuting what could be a crucial offensive in the 3-year-old conflict in Yemen.

While the overall war in the Arab world's poorest country has been led by Saudi Arabia, the ongoing battle for the Red Sea port city of Hodeida has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the UAE, a U.S.-allied federation of seven sheikhdoms.

Emirati troops, along with irregular and loyalist forces in Yemen, have been fighting against Shiite rebels known as Houthis for Hodeida since Wednesday. But fighting has been fierce and Emirati troops have been killed, with Houthi propaganda videos showing their armored vehicles disabled and set ablaze.

A top Emirati official acknowledged how the campaign for Hodeida goes will determine the likelihood of an end to Yemen's war. But it also will prove how serious the UAE's military is after billions of dollars of weapons purchases and previous stints as peacekeepers abroad.

"From our perspective, three years of war is enough. It is time for the political process," Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told journalists at a news conference Monday. "If the Houthis don't want to start the political process, we will force them to start the political process."

The UAE, previously called "Little Sparta" by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, has a Western-armed military of 63,000 troops. Its expeditionary forces already have served in Afghanistan and as peacekeepers in Kosovo.

Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has taken on a muscular neoconservative posture with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the war in Yemen. The Saudi-led force entered Yemen's war in March 2015 to support the country's ousted government against the Iranian-aided Houthis.

The war has seen over 10,000 people killed and sparked a major cholera epidemic.

The offensive for Hodeida has faced criticism from international aid groups, who fear a protracted fight could force a shutdown of the city's port and potentially tip millions into starvation. Some 70 percent of Yemen's food enters via the port, as well as the bulk of humanitarian aid and fuel supplies. Around two-thirds of the country's population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 million are already at risk of starving.

The port remains open for incoming ships and Gargash said the UAE had plans for "airdrops" of food if necessary. Hodeida International Airport, which has seen days of intense fighting, has been bombed and closed for years. Gargash said Emirati forces also fear the Houthis mining channels leading to the port.

"The first challenge facing us is the fragile humanitarian situation because of the importance of Hodeida," Gargash said. "The second one is not targeting civilians in this operation, avoiding civilian casualties."

So far, there have been "four or five civilians" killed, Gargash said, which he blamed on the Houthis. There have been no casualty figures released by international aid groups since the offensive began, as they evacuated their international staff and locals remain hiding in their homes.

"We will not be pulled into an ugly fight where we have to move into civilian" areas, Gargash said. "We will take our time."

The Houthis have as many as 3,000 fighters around Hodeida, Gargash said. He declined to offer the nationalities nor the numbers of troops now fighting in the Saudi-led coalition around Hodeida, only saying it had "numerical superiority" over the Houthis.

At least 250 Houthis have been killed in the fighting so far, he said. He declined to offer casualty figures for the Saudi-led coalition, though Emirati officials have so far announced the deaths of four of its soldiers in the offensive.

The Saudi-led coalition hasn't received active targeting help from the U.S., though it has offered guidance on avoiding civilian casualties in the past and midair refueling. Those airstrikes face widespread criticism for hitting marketplaces and hospitals, causing numerous civilian casualties.

Asked what help the U.S. is providing in Hodeida, Gargash declined to offer specifics. However, he acknowledged a French offer to help with demining the waters around Hodeida. He made a point to deny in Arabic the presence of any French forces on the ground in Hodeida, a claim reported Saturday by the French newspaper Le Figaro.

For now, he said he hoped the campaign would aid U.N. special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths' efforts to get a cease-fire and have the Houthis leave Hodeida.

"We are still counting on the U.N. attempt to try and pull a rabbit out of the hat," Gargash said.

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Associated Press writer Fay Abuelgasim contributed to this report.

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