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Pompeo allows US military aid to Saudi coalition in Yemen to continue
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday he made a certification allowing the U.S. military to continue refueling coalition aircraft in the Yemen civil war.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) signed into law last month requires the Trump administration to certify that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are taking steps to end the war, alleviate Yemen's humanitarian crisis and protect civilians.
The first certification was due Wednesday. The NDAA also requires certifications 180 days and 360 days after it was signed into law.
"I certified to Congress yesterday that the governments of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure resulting from military operations of these governments," Pompeo said in a statement Wednesday.
If Pompeo could not make the certification, the U.S. military would be required to stop refueling coalition aircraft.
Pompeo could have also submitted a justification to Congress to waive the certification on the basis of national security.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are leading a coalition in Yemen's civil war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels that began in 2015. The United States supports the coalition with aerial refueling, intelligence sharing and billions of dollars in arms sales.
U.S. lawmakers' patience with the Saudi coalition is wearing thin as the civilian death toll increases, largely blamed on coalition airstrikes. The United Nations pegs the civilian death toll at least at 6,660 as of Aug. 23.
Outrage increased last month after the coalition struck a school bus and killed 40 children. The outcry prompted a rare admission from the coalition that the strike was "unjustified."
The coalition pledged to hold those responsible accountable and review its rules of engagement.
The coalition's response to the school bus strike led some to believe it would give Pompeo cover to make the certification required by the NDAA.
The Trump administration has expressed concern about the coalition's conduct but insisted U.S. support is vital to counter Iran and has resisted congressional efforts to curtail support.
In his statement Wednesday, Pompeo said the administration "has been clear" that ending the war is a national security priority.
"We will continue to work closely with the Saudi-led coalition to ensure Saudi Arabia and the UAE maintain support for UN-led efforts to end the civil war in Yemen, allow unimpeded access for the delivery of commercial and humanitarian support through as many avenues as possible, and undertake actions that mitigate the impact of the conflict on civilians and civilian infrastructure," he said.
In a separate statement, Defense Secretary James Mattis said he endorsed Pompeo's certification.
"I endorse and fully support Secretary Pompeo's certification to the Congress that the governments of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are making every effort to reduce the risk of civilian casualties and collateral damage to civilian infrastructure resulting from their military operations to end the civil war in Yemen," Mattis said.
"The Saudi-led coalition's commitment is reflected in their support for these UN-led efforts. Alongside the Department of State we are actively engaged with Mr. Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy, to achieve a negotiated end to this fighting."
In the memo to Congress, the administration argues the coalition has taken steps to reduce the risk to civilians by paying for U.S. training for the Saudi air force, incorporating some U.S. recommendations into its rules of engagement and developing a no-strike list.
But, the memo adds, "recent civilian casualty incidents indicate insufficient implementation of reforms and targeting practices. Investigations have not yet yielded accountability measures."
The memo also says Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are complying with U.S. laws on arms sale "with rare exception," without elaborating on the exceptions.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who co-authored the NDAA provision, said the certification fails to hold the coalition to a "higher standard."
"The coalition clearly hasn't met these goals and it is evident that the administration is deliberately sidestepping congressional oversight," she said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. "Fortunately, our legislation established additional certification deadlines that ensure the administration is complying with policies that further U.S. national security interests and not simply the interests of partners who are acting irresponsibly. I hope that the administration will take these opportunities to finally use the leverage it has to hold our allies accountable."
Updated at 5:11 p.m.