Mattis praises Saudis, $1B arms sale to be approved

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis welcomes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the Pentagon with an Honor Cordon, in Washington, Thursday, March 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen) –The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Thursday said Saudi Arabia was “part of the solution” in Yemen, where the Saudis are leading a U.S.-supported military campaign against Houthi rebels that is heavily criticized for inflicting civilian casualties.

Mattis spoke at the start of a Pentagon meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is on a three-week U.S. visit. Earlier this week the Senate debated and then shelved a resolution calling for an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Mattis had opposed the measure, saying it would be counterproductive by increasing civilian casualties, jeopardizing counterterrorism cooperation and emboldening Iran to increase its support for Houthi rebels.

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In another vote of confidence in the Saudi military, the Trump administration told Congress on Thursday it planned to approve an arms sale to Saudi Arabia valued at more than $1 billion. The State Department said the package includes up to about 6,700 U.S.-made anti-tank missiles, along with servicing, maintanence and parts for helicopters and tanks already in the kingdom’s arsenal.

During a photo-taking session with the crown prince, Mattis was asked by a reporter whether he would raise concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen. Mattis said the U.S is working with the U.N.’s new envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths of Britain, in pursuit of a political solution to the civil war, which has killed more than 10,000 civilians since it started in March 2015.

“We believe that Saudi Arabia is part of the solution,” Mattis said. He added: “They have stood by the United Nations-recognized government, and we are going to end this war. That is the bottom line. And we are going to end it on positive terms for the people of Yemen but also security for the nations in the peninsula.”

In prepared remarks, Mattis said the U.S. has a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia in fighting extremists and deterring malign activities by Iran. He said a political settlement in Yemen would protect Saudi Arabia and deny safe haven to terrorists.

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“Your significant amounts of humanitarian aid is critical to help the innocent caught up in this conflict (and) we applaud you for that,” he told the crown prince.

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Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.