Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that it was halting a nearly month-old bombing campaign against a rebel group in neighboring Yemen that has touched off a devastating humanitarian crisis and threatened to ignite a broader regional conflict.
The announcement followed what American officials said was pressure applied by the Obama administration for the Saudis and other Sunni Arab nations to end the airstrikes. The bombing campaign, which has received logistical and intelligence support from the United States, has drawn intense criticism for causing civilian deaths and for appearing to be detached from a broad military strategy.
Weeks of fighting in Yemen, which was already suffering from the absence of any central authority, have left nearly a thousand people dead and provided an opening for Al Qaeda’s branch there to expand its territory. The conflict further threatened to entangle the United States and Iran in a potential military confrontation, just as they are about to continue difficult and delicate negotiations that they hope will result in a final nuclear agreement by the end of June.
In an interview Tuesday night, President Obama said he was optimistic that the crisis in Yemen could be settled. “That’s always been a fractious country with a lot of problems,” he told Chris Matthews of MSNBC. “There are a lot of people inside Yemen suffering. What we need to do is bring all the parties together and find a political arrangement.”
The Saudis have long accused the Houthis, whose leaders adhere to a variant of Shiite Islam, of serving as an Iranian proxy. The Obama administration warned in recent days that Iran might be trying to arm the Houthis and moved on Monday to deploy a strengthened armada of warships off Yemen’s coast as a deterrent.
The exact role that Iran has played, however, is far from clear. Although Yemeni officials and Western diplomats have said there is evidence that Iran has given arms and other support to the Houthis over the past several years, they caution that the rebel group is anything but a puppet of Tehran and that the Houthis’ actions have stemmed from their dealings with Yemeni factions and their own domestic agenda.
Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken to the Saudi government repeatedly over the past several days, and John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, visited the Saudi capital, Riyadh. A senior American official said Tuesday that there had been a number of discussions in recent days among American, Saudi and United Arab Emirates officials about ending the bombing campaign.
Asked why, the American official said, “Too much collateral damage.” The United Arab Emirates was one of several Arab nations that joined the Saudi-led campaign.
The Saudis announced the suspension of the bombings just hours after a top Iranian official said he expected a cease-fire to be declared.
“We are optimistic that in the coming hours, after many efforts, we will see a halt to military attacks in Yemen,” the official, the deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, said, according to Iranian news agencies.
It was not immediately clear whether the Saudi and Iranian announcements were public evidence of back-channel negotiating, or whether the Saudi halt to the bombing would lead to peace talks among the antagonists in Yemen. A senior Houthi political leader, responding to rumors of a possible political deal, said late Tuesday that no agreement had been reached.
The aerial attacks began March 26 and were announced in a rare news conference in Washington by Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
“We will do whatever it takes to protect the legitimate government of Yemen,” Mr. Jubeir said at the time.
Saudi Arabia has said that the coalition was justified in its campaign to stop the advance of the Houthi militia, based in northern Yemen, which routed the Saudi-backed government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, now in exile. Critics of the Saudi offensive called it a perilous overreaction, based on the false premise that the Houthis were taking their orders from Iran.
The Houthis’ most significant alliance is local, most analysts say, with members of Yemen’s armed forces loyal to the country’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
But the airstrikes paralyzed Yemen, the Middle East’s poorest country, and left hundreds of people dead and thousands wounded and homeless. Saudi Arabia had come under growing international pressure to halt the bombings, which hit civilian targets with a regularity that human rights groups said could amount to war crimes.
The deadliest attacks included a strike that killed dozens at a camp for displaced Yemenis and others that struck a dairy factory, killing at least 31 workers on the night shift. On Monday, a Saudi airstrike near an air defense base in the capital caused an enormous explosion that flattened homes in a nearby neighborhood and left at least 25 people dead.
Officials at the World Health Organization in Geneva said Tuesday that Yemen’s health services had collapsed. They said the cumulative death toll in Yemen since the fighting escalated last month was at least 944, with nearly 3,500 wounded. Many thousands more have been displaced from their homes.
There have also been questions about what the military coalition could accomplish with airstrikes alone.
The official Saudi Press Agency, quoting a Defense Ministry statement, said the airstrikes had “successfully managed to thwart the threat on the security of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries through destruction of the heavy weapons and ballistic missiles seized by the Houthi militias and troops loyal to (Ali Abdullah Saleh), including bases and camps of the Yemeni army.”
The announcement on Tuesday held out the possibility of a political deal and speedy relief for Yemen’s cities, and especially Sana, which has endured airstrikes almost daily. But it seemed just as likely that the Saudi declaration, with its vague threat of new military action, could usher in another phase of combat, analysts said. In one possibility, the Saudis could continue their intervention by other means, including an increase in their support of proxies fighting the Houthis and their allies — a tactic the Saudis have favored in the past.
There was no indication that the Houthis and their allies had retreated from any of the territory they had captured, including Sana and areas farther south, like parts of Aden, a port that has been ravaged by fighting over the past few weeks.
“No one has been seriously weakened,” said a diplomat who once served in Yemen and asked for anonymity to discuss a country’s possible motives. The Saudis “will take a break from bombing Sana, but they will carry on.”
In the absence of a settlement, the Saudi decision provided little comfort to Yemenis who had fled cities like Aden, where there were still clashes on Tuesday, according to local residents.
The halt in the airstrikes is “good for the rest of Yemen,” said Ahmed Kulaib, 30, a resident of Aden who fled the city and lives in a refugee camp in Djibouti.
But fighters in Aden resisting the Houthis, he added, are still facing “heavy work.”