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Human Rights Groups Criticize U.S. Arms Sale To Saudi Arabia

Yemeni men clear debris following an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition in the capital, Sanaa, on Nov. 29.
Mohammed Huwais
AFP/Getty Images
Yemeni men clear debris following an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition in the capital, Sanaa, on Nov. 29.

The State Department has approved a $1.29 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which includes as many as 13,000 precision guided weapons or smart bombs. The sale comes as Human Rights Watch charges that Saudi airstrikes in Yemen "have indiscriminately killed and injured civilians."

Congress was notified of the sale on Nov. 13 and has 30 days to block the deal — unlikely because congressional staffers have already carefully reviewed the sale. It now appears set to go through this week as part of the Obama administration's pledge to boost military support for Gulf states, after negotiating a nuclear deal with regional rival Iran.

A Saudi-led coalition launched an air war in Yemen in March. The Saudi royals pledged a quick victory after Houthi rebels seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, and ousted the Saudi-backed government.

For the Saudis and Gulf allies, the Houthis, supported by Iran, are a proxy for Iranian expansion in the region. The Saudis have vowed to counter Iran. But the war has dragged on, devastating Yemen and the country's fragile infrastructure, with more than 2,000 civilians killed and more than 5,000 injured.

"We used precision bombs in the beginning, but the stocks dwindled and we got no resupply," complained a Saudi businessman with links to the royal family. He asked to withhold his name so he could speak about a sensitive subject. "We know we have a problem, but we must prosecute the war."

For months, Saudi officials asked the State Department to approve the current sale, according to Saudi and Western sources in Riyadh. With dwindling supplies, the Royal Saudi Air Force has to rely on unguided weapons or "dumb" bombs. Experts say this increases the chances that more civilians will be killed.

"You can imagine them saying to everybody that is criticizing them, 'Look, if we have better weapons, there will be less casualties,' " says Ford M. Fraker, president of the Middle East Policy Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who was in Riyadh this week. "I think that is probably correct, but I think the whole issue of civilian casualties is not one you are going to eradicate."

Human Rights Watch has called on Congress to block the weapons sale to the Saudis and issued a highly critical report in November charging that the Saudi-led coalition has failed to investigate what it called "unlawful coalition airstrikes in Yemen." According to the United Nations, most of the 2,600 civilian deaths since the coalition began strikes against the Houthis have resulted from those coalition airstrikes.

A Saudi military spokesman confirmed today that the Saudi military has an investigations committee that now meets to look into allegations of civilian casualties. According to the spokesman, the committee includes representatives from the defense and foreign affairs ministries, the Saudi Red Crescent and military lawyers. However, there are no public reports from those investigations.

The Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which facilitates foreign sales, says the sale would replenish supplies and "help sustain strong military-to-military relationships between the United States and Saudi Arabia."

The proposed sale includes some of the most advanced precision weapons systems produced in the U.S., including Joint Direct Attack Munitions, known as JDAMs. These and other smart weapon systems have GPS guidance systems, a substantial improvement over the unguided weapons that are now in the Saudi stocks. However, it's not clear when the new munitions would be delivered once the sale goes through.

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Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.