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U.S. forces now on the ground supporting combat operations in Yemen, Pentagon says

An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter, assigned to the “Chargers” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 26, prepares to land on the flight deck of guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez (DDG 66). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Pasquale Sena)

The Pentagon has placed a small number of U.S. advisors on the ground in Yemen to support Arab forces battling al-Qaeda, military officials said on Friday, signaling a new American role in that country’s multi-sided civil war.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said U.S. personnel had been in the country for about two weeks, supporting Yemeni and Emirati forces that are fighting a pitched battle against militants near the southeastern port city of Mukalla.

“We view this as short-term,” Davis told reporters.

Officials said the U.S. military is also providing Emirati forces with medical, intelligence and maritime support, and is flying surveillance and aerial refueling missions. It has also staged a ships from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit off Yemen’s coast. The flotilla includes the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship with Marine infantry and aircraft, and two destroyers, the USS Gravely and the USS Gonzalez.

Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said the United States was helping the Arab forces plan operations as part of its “limited” mission in and around Mukalla.

“We welcome operations undertaken by Yemeni Forces, with the support of Arab Coalition Forces, to liberate the Yemeni port city of Mukalla from control by al- Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),” Ryder said in an email.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations, said that the U.S. presence, approved at the request of the United Arab Emirates, was “way small.”

Even a tiny military footprint marks a milestone for U.S. involvement in the Yemeni conflict, which brought an end a year and a half ago to a long-running U.S. mission there against AQAP.

After the internationally recognized Yemeni government, unable to contain Shiite Houthi rebels, collapsed at the end of 2014, the United States was forced to pull out Special Operations troops who had been training and advising their Yemeni peers.

[Yemen is turning into Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam]

The departure was a blow to U.S. efforts to battle AQAP, which has long been considered the most menacing al-Qaeda branch and which has seized on the chaos of the ongoing conflict to strengthen its military position.

Since then, the United States has confined its military activities mostly to supporting a Saudi-led coalition battling the Houthi rebels, which the Kingdom sees as an Iranian proxy force. The Pentagon has provided some intelligence and aerial support to the Saudi-led air war.

The new American advisory team will support the Emirati troops and Yemeni forces loyal to the old government as they seek to capi­tal­ize on recent headway against AQAP in Mukalla, which was seized by militants last year. Saudi Special Operations forces have also been taking part in the campaign against AQAP around Mukalla.

Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the U.S. presence would reinforce an encouraging trend. “This is exactly the type of [situation] where a little bit of American support goes a long way,” he said.

President Obama’s preference for using small Special Operations teams to conduct targeted operations or advise partner forces has been a hallmark of his global security strategy.

American officials also considered the Mukalla offensive a success because it marked an unprecedented coalition action against AQAP. U.S. officials have long encouraged Saudi Arabia to broaden its focus in Yemen beyond the Houthis, and have also complained of high civilian casualties in a conflict that has killed at least 6,000 people.

The United Nations continues to seek a political solution in peace talks in Kuwait City.

Military officials declined to say what type of U.S. personnel were on the ground in Yemen or provide their exact location. “They are not in harm’s way,” the U.S. official said.

[U.S. targets al-Qaeda in Yemen airstrike that kills dozens, Pentagon says]

Even after the end of its training mission, the United States has tried to contain AQAP’s growth using periodic airstrikes of its own.

Davis said the United States has conducted four strikes against al-Qaeda militants since April 23, killing 10 militants and wounding one. In March the Pentagon announced it had killed more than 70 al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen in one of the largest U.S. strikes conducted in the country since the beginning of operations there.

According to a Long War Journal database, the United States has conducted roughly 140 airstrikes in Yemen since 2002.