U.S. takes step toward ending military support for Saudis in Yemen

The U.S. Senate voted on Wednesday to advance a resolution to end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen's civil war, setting the stage for a possible final vote on the measure within days.

Pompeo says there's 'no direct reporting' connecting crown prince to Khashoggi murder

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, arrives for a closed door meeting with senators about Saudi Arabia Wednesday on Capitol Hill in Washington. Senators have grown increasingly uneasy with the U.S. response to Saudi Arabia after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

The U.S. Senate voted on Wednesday to advance a resolution to end the country's military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen's civil war, setting the stage for a possible final vote on the measure within days.

Underscoring bipartisan unhappiness with President Donald Trump's response to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the murder of a journalist at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, many of Trump's fellow Republicans joined Democrats to advance the measure by a vote of 63-37.

Gulf Arab states have been battling in Yemen since 2015 to restore a government driven out by the Houthis — Shia Muslim fighters that Yemen's neighbours view as agents of Iran. The war has killed more than 10,000 people and created the world's most urgent humanitarian emergency.

Republican Mike Lee of Utah introduced the Yemen resolution with Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

This week, a coalition of five aid groups urged the U.S. and others providing logistical and military support to the Saudi-led coalition to avoid putting more people at risk of starvation in Yemen.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently renewed U.S. support, indicating that the coalition was doing its best to limit civilian casualties despite the high-profile incident in which over 50 children were killed in August.

Pompeo urged the Senate to reconsider support for the resolution, saying it could "undermine" a fragile effort undertaken by UN envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths to broker talks between the Houthis and the coalition in Sweden next month.

On the subject of Yemen's war, Pompeo said the United States would provide an additional $131 million US for food aid.

Warning against weaker Saudi ties

Both Pompeo and U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis said on Wednesday that downgrading U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia would be a mistake for national security and would not push Saudis in a better direction at home.

The two were briefing the U.S. Senate behind closed doors about Saudi Arabia and the Oct. 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as the civil war in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives at Ministro Pistarini International Airport in Buenos Aires on Wednesday. It was unclear what kind of reception the crown prince would get from world diplomats and Argentinians. (G20 via Reuters)

"The October murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has heightened the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on. But degrading U.S.-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the U.S. and its allies," Pompeo wrote in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal shortly before the briefing for U.S. senators.

Pompeo made the case that the Saudis are too important an ally to lose, citing Saudi Arabia's help to contain Iran in the region, secure democracy in Iraq and fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other militant groups.

'Powerful force' for Mideast stability

"The kingdom is a powerful force for stability in the Middle East," he wrote. "Saudi Arabia, like the U.S. — and unlike these critics — recognizes the immense threat the Islamic Republic of Iran poses to the world."

Trump has insisted that there is not enough evidence to blame Saudi's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in the killing of Khashoggi who relocated to the U.S. in 2017 and wrote for the Washington Post.

Mattis echoed Pompeo's comments on Wednesday, according to remarks sent to reporters.

"I must note we are seldom free to work with unblemished partners ... Our security interests cannot be dismissed, even as we seek accountability for what President Trump described as the 'unacceptable and horrible crime' of Jamal Khashoggi's murder," Mattis said.

I must note we are seldom free to work with unblemished partners.- U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis

Democrats and Republicans have accused Trump of ignoring U.S. intelligence that concluded the crown prince likely ordered the killing. Trump, in another apparent clash with his own intelligence agencies, as in the case of Russian election interference, has said the CIA can't conclusively prove the crown prince approved the killing — a standard of proof not often available in the world of espionage.

"The CIA doesn't say they did it," Trump said on Nov. 22. "They do point out certain things. And in pointing out those things, you could conclude that maybe he did or didn't."

Pompeo met with reporters after the briefing and said he had been privy to all known U.S. intelligence on Khashoggi's killing, which he described as "heinous."

"There is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi," he said.

Mattis said, separately, "I have personally read all the intelligence" and it was his opinion there was "no smoking gun" linking the killing to bin Salman.

Chuck Schumer, Senate minority leader, took the administration to task for not making CIA director Gina Haspel available to the briefing, as often occurs in such briefings.

"What is the White House trying to hide?" the New York Democrat said.

"Members of this body have a right to hear from director Haspel, and her absence today speaks volumes — volumes — about the White House's intentions for congressional oversight and Saudi Arabia."

Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee said after the briefing it was apparent to everyone in the room that the crown prince was responsible for Khashoggi's death.

"We have a problem here. We understand that Saudi Arabia is an ally, of sorts, and a semi important country," said Corker, chairman of the Senate's foreign relations committee. "We also have a crown prince that's out of control."

'You can kill with impunity'

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey said Washington was basically telling an ally, "You can kill with impunity."

"It is outrageous that we are willing to turn our eye away from such a murder because we have 'interests,'" he said.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he would withhold his vote on any key issue, including upcoming spending bills, until the CIA briefs senators about the killing.

"I am not going to be denied the ability to be briefed by the CIA, that we have oversight of, about whether or not their assessment supports my belief that this could not have happened without MBS knowing," Graham told reporters.

If the briefing supports his view the crown prince knew about the operation, "there will be no more business as usual with Saudi Arabia," said Graham.

With files from CBC News

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