WASHINGTON — The State Department said Thursday it had approved the sale of an estimated $670 million in anti-tank missiles to Saudi Arabia, just hours after…
The proposed package includes up to 6,700 missiles made by Raytheon, as well as spare parts for U.S.-made tanks and helicopters that Saudi Arabia already owns.
The proposed sale is bound to be questioned by Congress, where the Senate this week rejected a bipartisan effort to halt U.S. military support for the bombing campaign in Yemen. The Trump administration strenuously protested the effort, and sent Pentagon and State Department officials to Capitol Hill last week to lobby against its passage.
In the end, the administration prevailed, and lawmakers from both parties shelved the measure for further debate by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That it got that far demonstrates the increased frustration by Republicans and Democrats over Washington’s support for the Saudi campaign against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, which has been roundly criticized by human rights organizations because of the large number of civilian casualties.
The State Department said in a statement that it had notified Congress on Thursday of the proposed arms sale. Lawmakers have 30 days to try to stop it.
“This proposed sale will support U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives by helping to improve the security of a friendly country which has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic growth in the Middle East,” the statement said.
“Saudi Arabia will have no difficulty absorbing this equipment and support into its armed forces.”
Hours earlier, Salman met with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who characterized Saudi Arabia as “part of the solution” in Yemen, which has been ripped apart by civil war.
Before the start of the meeting, a reporter asked Mattis whether he planned to raise concerns with Salman about civilian casualties. Mattis said the United States was working with other countries to pursue a political solution in Yemen.
He said Saudi Arabia has supported the government in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, which is recognized by the United Nations. “We are going to end this war. That is the bottom line,” Mattis said. “And we are going to end it on positive terms for the people of Yemen but also security for the nations in the peninsula.”
The strife in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, began in 2014, when Houthis, Shiite rebels aligned with Iran, invaded Sanaa. Those rebels later ousted the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a staunch ally of the United States, who was once praised by American officials as a leading partner in the fight against terrorism.
Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s neighbor and a major regional power, began a concerted bombing campaign in early 2015 to help push back the Houthis. But that campaign has long raised the ire of human rights organizations for repeated bombings on civilians, something the Pentagon has admitted it has little oversight of.
One of the last acts of the Obama administration, in December 2016, was to block a transfer of precision munitions to Saudi Arabia because of concerns about civilian casualties that U.S. officials attributed to poor targeting.
That decision blocked the sale by Raytheon of about 16,000 guided munitions kits, which upgrade dumb bombs to smart bombs. It was roundly excoriated by Raytheon and Saudi royal officials.
Since taking office, President Donald Trump has developed a far friendlier relationship with the royal family, and the crown prince in particular, than President Barack Obama had.
A Pentagon spokeswoman, Dana White, said Mattis did not bring up the mounting civilian casualties in Yemen during his discussion with Salman. Instead, she said, the defense secretary discussed the continued cooperation between the United States and Saudi Arabia through additional training and military education.
“Clearly,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, “the Trump administration has failed to understand — or simply doesn’t care about — the gravity of the human rights and humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. Instead of using their leverage smartly to push the visiting Saudi crown prince to stop abuse, the White House is signaling support for large-scale abuse — by unconditionally backing Riyadh with millions more in weapons sales.”
Margon called on the Senate to “step up to the plate and make clear U.S. support will not go unchecked this time around.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.