US halts some arms sales to Saudis over Yemen concerns

US halts some arms sales to Saudis over Yemen concerns
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The United States has halted some arms sales to Saudi Arabia amid concerns about mounting civilian casualties in Yemen's civil war, according to multiple reports Tuesday.

The decision to suspend sales of precision-guided munitions comes after an Obama administration review of its support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. The review follows an October airstrike on a funeral that killed more than 140 people.

In a briefing, State Department spokesman John Kirby confirmed that changes have been made to U.S. support as a result, but declined to discuss specifics.

“I’m not going to get into the details, but there have been some adjustments made that will help us further support a strong defense of the Saudi border and that the focus will continue to be on enhancing the sharing and analysis of threat information so that Saudi Arabia can better defend itself against future cross border attacks,” he said.

He also confirmed that the review continues, even after implementation of certain changes.

“Our review of support ... continues, and it’s based on continued concerns that we have about military operations there in Yemen, but also driven by our firm commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend itself against the threat across its border,” he said.

The coalition has been fighting the Iran-backed Houthis since March 2015. The United States has supported the effort with limited intelligence and logistics such as air refueling, as well as by selling the Saudis billions of dollars in arms.

But human rights groups and some lawmakers have been putting increasing pressure on the Obama administration to scale back support as the civilian death toll mounts. More than 4,000 civilians have been killed since March 2015, according to the United Nations.

In September, a bipartisan group of senators mounted an unsuccessful attempt to block a $1.15 billion arms sale over the issue.

The issue came to a head with the October funeral strike, which Saudi Arabia has called a mistake made based on incorrect information. But around the same time, the U.S. was facing the prospect of being drawn further into the conflict after missiles fired from Houthi-controlled territory targeted a U.S. destroyer, and the U.S. Navy retaliated by striking Houthi radar sites.

In addition to deciding to halt the precision-guide munitions sales, the U.S. will curtail some intelligence sharing that could lead to civilian casualties, according to the reports. At the same time, the U.S. will also increase the information it shares specifically about Saudi border security, which has been the Saudis’ stated concern in leading the coalition against the Houthis.

Further, the U.S. is also changing training to improve the Saudi air force’s targeting, according to reports citing anonymous officials.

Other aspects of U.S. support, including air refueling, will remain the same, the reports say.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), one of Congress’s most outspoken critics of the administration’s support of the Saudi-led campaign, called the continuation of air refueling “shameful.”

“SHAMEFUL that US continues to refuel #Saudi jets that drop bombs on women & children in #Yemen,” Lieu said in a tweet Tuesday.

“My prediction: the muddled message White House is sending to #SaudiArabia is not going to stop further #warcrimes from occurring in #Yemen," he added in a second tweet.

Sunjeev Bery, Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, also expressed concerns about continuing to refuel Saudi aircraft.

“Despite the pause on some arms sales to Saudi Arabia, AIUSA remains concerned about the U.S. continuing to refuel the very Saudi Arabian air force that is bombing civilians in Yemen,” Bery said in a statement.

Other planned arms sales, including a $3.51 billion sale of Chinook helicopters approved last week, will also move forward.

The change also comes toward the end of the Obama administration, and it’s unclear what tack President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE will take with Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni civil war was not mentioned on the campaign trail, but Trump’s tough talk on Iran has encouraged some in Riyadh.