SANA'A, Yemen - Saudi jets pounded neighboring Yemen on Thursday and Egyptian warships steamed toward its coast in the start of an Arab-led offensive against Shiite rebels that has become a showdown between the major powers in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies plunged into the Yemen crisis after Shiite insurgents, known as Houthis, pushed from their power base in the north into the south, forcing the country's pro-Saudi, Western-backed president to flee.
The move inflamed the already tense relationship between Shiite power Iran, which has increased its support for the Houthi rebels as their rebellion has expanded, and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominated nations.
There were indications that the battle could grow to become a land war. Saudi state TV said Thursday that a ground offensive was being studied, but gave no further details. Egypt's minister of foreign affairs, Sameh Shoukri, said in a speech to Arab foreign ministers that Egypt was willing "to send ground forces if necessary" to back the anti-Houthi fight.
Four Egyptian naval vessels were dispatched to Yemen, where they were expected to arrive late Thursday, according to official media.
Ground forces would likely face stiff resistance from the Houthis, who have taken control of large swathes of Yemen and appear to have strong support from the country's military and the powerful former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
In a televised speech, Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi predicted that Yemenis would oppose the "criminal, unjust and unjustified aggression" by Saudi Arabia.
But the military pressure could force the rebels back into power-sharing talks that they abandoned in January, when the insurgents put President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi under house arrest after clashes in the capital. In February, the Houthis effectively toppled the government.
Saudi Arabia has mobilized a major force, suggesting it was prepared for a sustained fight. Up to 10 countries are believed to be participating in the Saudi-led coalition, although many have refrained from acknowledging their role. The United States had viewed Hadi as a key partner in the fight against al-Qaeda, whose Yemen branch is considered especially dangerous. Washington has offered intelligence help and other logistical support to the current Saudi-led operation.
It was unclear how Iran would respond to the show of strength by Saudi Arabia and its allies. Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told Iran's Arabic-language al-Alam channel that "We will spare no effort to contain the crisis in Yemen." But the Reuters news agency quoted an unidentified senior Iranian official as saying "Military intervention is not an option for Tehran."
According to Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya News, Saudi Arabia has dedicated 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers, and navy units to the operation against Yemen.
Saudi officials have said they are seeking to restore Hadi to power. He was driven from his last outpost in the southern port of Aden on Wednesday. He resurfaced on Thursday at an air base in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
The head of the Arab League, Nabil el Arabi, and Egypt's Shoukri announced Thursday during a meeting of Arab foreign ministers that the officials had decided to create a unified military force to respond to crises. It was to be discussed further at an Arab Summit meeting that is to begin Saturday in the Egyptian beach resort of Sharm el Sheikh.
The air attacks on Yemen began in the early hours of Thursday. Saudi fighter jets struck the main civilian airport and the Dailami air force base in Sana'a, which is under the control of the Houthis, hitting the runways and destroying four Yemeni air force planes. There were also airstrikes in the northern province of Saada, apparently aimed at hitting the Houthi leader.
At least 23 people were killed in the attacks, according to a Yemen Ministry of Health official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.