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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Mike Pompeo and Jim Mattis tell US senators: downgrading Saudi Arabia ties would be mistake

The pair said support for Riyadh was crucial to maintaining regional security

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks during a change of command ceremony at the US Southern Command headquarters on Monday, November 26, 2018. AP
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks during a change of command ceremony at the US Southern Command headquarters on Monday, November 26, 2018. AP

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis made a last ditch effort in Congress on Wednesday trying to convince lawmakers to refrain from taking steps that would cripple the US role in Yemen or endanger the relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Amid mounting pressure on the Trump administration in the aftermath of the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, and as Congress considers a whole range of sanctions bills to punish Riyadh, the administration dispatched Mr Pompeo and Mr Mattis to urge restraint.

In a rare closed briefing addressing the whole Senate, the two cabinet members were expected to make the case against rocking the boat in Yemen and vis a vis Saudi Arabia, and did so in prepared remarks ahead of their behind-closed-doors remarks.

"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," Mr Mattis said, according to remarks sent to reporters.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday also defended America's support for Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war, warning lawmakers the conflict would worsen without US involvement.

Mr Pompeo was due to speak to the Senate alongside Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to discuss US support for the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels, ahead of a possible vote on reducing military backing to the Saudis.

"The suffering in Yemen grieves me, but if the United States of America was not involved in Yemen, it would be a hell of a lot worse. What would happen if the US withdrew from the Yemen effort? Guess what: The war wouldn’t end," said Mr Pompeo in prepared remarks.

Questions related to the extent of the US role and what the US intelligence knows about the Jamal Khashoggi murder were on lawmakers’ minds ahead of the briefing. “What obviously happened [in the Khashoggi case] is completely abhorrent to everything the United States holds dear and stands for in the world," Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday. “We are discussing what the appropriate response should be."

But the director of the CIA Gina Haspel, the only Trump cabinet member who listened to the alleged audio of the killing in Istanbul, did not take part in the briefing. CNN reported on Tuesday that the White House has not cleared Ms Haspel’s participation.

Still the briefing, which took place ahead of a critical vote in Congress on the War Powers Resolution on Thursday, was aimed to convince the majority of Senate to vote against the bill that would force the US to end its military role in Yemen. Last time Congress took that bill was in March and it fell short by six votes then.

US defense chief Mr Mattis said "tragedies occur in war, we assess restraint and improved tactical judgment by Arab coalition pilots has reduced the risk of civilian casualties”. Mr Mattis was also to make the case against a vote on a measure to invoke the War Powers Resolution, an act that could end US involvement in Yemen, since Washington's role in the war is not operational. The US stopped the refueling of Arab Coalition planes last month.

But Senators Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy and Mike Lee continued their work on Wednesday to get the 51 votes needed to introduce the resolution. While more lawmakers were expected to support the bill than the 44 Senators in March, it was not clear if a slight majority would.

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Congress is also considering bills that would block arms sales to Saudi and issue more sanctions under the Magnitsky Act. But Mr Pompeo warned against such moves in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.

Under a headline 'We don’t condone Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. But the kingdom is a powerful force for Mideast stability', Mr Pompeo said that “degrading US-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the US and its allies”.

“Saudi Arabia is working to secure Iraq’s fragile democracy and keep Baghdad tethered to the West’s interests, not Tehran’s…is helping manage the flood of refugees fleeing Syria…cooperating closely with Egypt, and establishing stronger ties with Israel…and has also contributed millions of dollars to the US-led effort to fight Islamic State and other terrorist organisations,” Mr Pompeo wrote as he made the case for strategic relations between US and Saudi Arabia.

He then went on the offensive, asking if “is it any coincidence that the people using the Khashoggi murder as a cudgel against President Trump’s Saudi Arabia policy are the same people who supported Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Iran – a regime that has killed thousands worldwide, including hundreds of Americans, and brutalises its own people?”

Mr Pompeo, a hawk on Iran, said “Saudi Arabia, like the US – and unlike these critics – recognises the immense threat the Islamic Republic of Iran poses to the world”.

In Yemen, he added that Iran’s backed Houthis “have occupied Saudi territory, seized a major port, and, with Iranian help, improved their ballistic-missile targeting so that they can shoot at Riyadh’s international airport…Tehran has shown no genuine interest in a diplomatic solution to the Yemen conflict.”

The Senate vote on the War Powers Resolution, if passed, would be the first time that Congress has blocked a president on war authorisation.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told reporters in New York on Wednesday he is hopeful that Yemen peace talks beginning in December as the conditions become riper for bringing both sides to the table.

“We are at a very crucial moment. I believe there is a chance to step up efforts early in December but we are not there yet," he said.

“I held consultations with Martin Griffiths this morning. I think we are very close to creating conditions for the peace talks to start. Saudi Arabia is crucial for that process. If we are able to stop the Yemen war we will be stopping the world’s wordt humanitarian disaster.”