Trump orders more Iran curbs, Saudi shows attack evidence

By Stephen Kalin and Parisa Hafezi

JEDDAH/DUBAI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he ordered a major increase in sanctions on Iran as Saudi Arabia displayed remnants of drones and missiles it said Tehran used in a crippling weekend attack on its oil facilities.

Trump gave no explanation in a brief Twitter posting announcing the order, but the initiative follows repeated U.S. assertions that the Islamic Republic was behind Saturday’s attack on the kingdom, a close U.S. ally.

“I have just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to substantially increase sanctions on the country of Iran!,” he wrote.

Iran, however, again denied involvement in the Sept. 14 raids, which hit the world’s biggest crude processing facility and initially knocked out half of Saudi production.

“They want to impose maximum … pressure on Iran through slander,” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said.

“We don’t want conflict in the region … Who started the conflict?” he added, blaming Washington and its Gulf allies for the war in Yemen.

Yemen’s Houthi movement, an ally of Iran battling a Western-backed, Saudi-led coalition for more than four years, has claimed responsibility and said it used drones to assault state oil company Aramco’s sites.

However, the Saudi Defense Ministry held a news conference, displaying drone and missile debris it said was “undeniable” evidence of Iranian aggression. A total of 25 drones and missiles were used in the attacks launched from Iran not Yemen, the ministry spokesman added.

Saturday’s attack exposed the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure and threw down a gauntlet to the United States, which wants to curb Tehran’s influence in the region.

Proof of Iranian responsibility could pressure Riyadh and Washington into a response, though both nations were stressing the need for caution.

Trump has said he does not want war and is coordinating with Gulf and European states.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the hit on the world’s biggest crude exporter was a “real test of the global will” to confront subversion of the international order.

His envoy to London, Prince Khalid bin Bander, told the BBC the attack was “almost certainly” Iranian-backed, however: “We’re trying not to react too quickly because the last thing we need is more conflict in the region.”

“COMPELLING EVIDENCE”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was to meet Prince Mohammed in Jeddah on Wednesday to discuss the crisis before heading to the United Arab Emirates.

U.N. officials monitoring sanctions on Iran and Yemen were also heading to Saudi Arabia to investigate.

France, which is trying to salvage an international nuclear deal with Iran that Washington quit last year, said it wanted to establish the facts before reacting.

A U.S. official told Reuters the strikes originated in southwestern Iran. Three officials said they involved cruise missiles and drones, indicating a higher degree of complexity and sophistication than initially thought.

The officials did not provide evidence or explain what U.S. intelligence they were using for evaluating the attack, which cut 5% of global production.

Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday the 5.7 million barrels per day of output lost would be fully restored by the end of the month.

Oil prices fell after the Saudi reassurances, having surged more than 20% at one point on Monday – the biggest intra-day jump since the 1990-91 Gulf War. [O/R]

Saudi Arabia’s finance minister told Reuters on Wednesday the attack had no impact on revenues and Aramco was continuing to supply markets without interruption.

U.S. efforts to bring about a U.N. Security Council response look unlikely to succeed as Russia and China have veto powers and are expected to shield Iran.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has offered to sell Riyadh defense systems, called for a “thorough and impartial” probe during a phone call with Prince Mohammed.

The assault exposed serious gaps in Saudi air defense despite billions of dollars spent on Western military hardware and repeated attacks on vital assets during its four-and-a-half year foray into the Yemen war.

“The attack is like Sept. 11th for Saudi Arabia, it is a game changer,” said one Saudi security analyst.

IRAN-U.S. CONFLICT

Already frayed U.S.-Iran ties deteriorated further when Trump quit the nuclear pact and reimposed sanctions, severely hurting the Iranian economy. Iran has ruled out talks with Washington unless it returns to the pact.

Trump said he is not looking to meet Rouhani during a U.N. event in New York this month. Rouhani and his foreign minister may not attend the General Assembly at all unless U.S. visas are issued in the coming hours, state media reported Wednesday.

Washington and its Gulf allies want Iran to stop supporting regional proxies, including in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.

Despite years of air strikes against them, the Houthi movement boasts drones and missiles able to reach deep into Saudi Arabia, the result of an arms race since the Western-backed coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015.

Iran’s clerical rulers support the Houthis, who ousted Yemen’s internationally recognized government from power in the capital Sanaa in late 2014. But Tehran denies it actively supports them with military and financial support.

Iran maintains the largest ballistic and cruise missile capabilities in the Middle East that could overwhelm virtually any Saudi missile defense system, according to think-tank CSIS, given the geographic proximity of Tehran and its proxy forces.

But even more limited strikes have proved too much for Saudi Arabia, including recent ones claimed by the Houthis on a civilian airport, oil pumping stations and the Shaybah oilfield.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Stephen Kalin in Jeddah; Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London, Michelle Nichols in New York, Rania El Gamal, Davide Barbuscia and Marwa Rashad in Riyadh, Asma Alsharif and Sylvia Westall in Dubai, Alaa Swilam and Hisham El Saba in Cairo, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Tim Kelly in Tokyo, John Irish and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris, Phil Stewart and Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and William Maclean)

Saudi oil output to recover in two or three weeks after attack: sources

A satellite image showing damage to oil/gas Saudi Aramco infrastructure at Abqaiq, in Saudi Arabia in this handout picture released by the U.S Government September 15, 2019. U.S. Government/DigitalGlobe/Handout via REUTERS

By Alex Lawler and Parisa Hafezi

LONDON/DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia sought to calm markets on Tuesday after an attack on its oil facilities, with sources in the kingdom saying output was recovering much more quickly than initially forecast and could be fully back in two or three weeks.

International oil companies, fellow members of the OPEC oil cartel and global energy policymakers had heard no updates on the impact of the weekend attack from the Saudis for 48 hours, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

And on Monday, sources briefed on state oil giant Aramco’s operations had said it could take months for output to recover.

The attack knocked out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production, or 5% of global output, sending prices soaring when trading resumed on Monday. So the new prediction of a quick return to normal output sent prices down sharply on Tuesday.

The kingdom is close to restoring 70% of the 5.7 million barrels per day lost due to the attack, a top Saudi official said, adding that Aramco’s output would be fully back online in the next two to three weeks.

The Saudi energy minister will hold a news conference on Tuesday at 1715 GMT, giving what would be the first official update since Aramco announced on Sunday that attacks on its plants in Abqaiq and Khurais had knocked out 5.7 million barrels per day.

While the Houthi group, which is fighting a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, U.S. President Donald Trump blamed Iran. That accusation prompted Iran’s supreme leader on Tuesday to rule out talks with Washington.

NUCLEAR ACCORD

Trump said on Monday that it looked like Iran was behind the strike at the heart of the Saudi oil industry, but stressed he did not want to go to war. Iran denied it was to blame.

“Iranian officials, at any level, will never talk to American officials … this is part of their policy to put pressure on Iran,” Iranian state TV quoted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as saying.

He said talks could only take place if the United States returned to a nuclear accord between Iran and the West that Trump abandoned last year.

U.S.-Iran relations deteriorated after Trump quit the accord and reimposed sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic programs. He also wants Iran to stop supporting regional proxies, including the Houthis.

But a day after warning that the United States was “locked and loaded” to respond to the incident, Trump dialed down his rhetoric, saying on Monday there was “no rush” to do so and that Washington was coordinating with Gulf Arab and European states.

“I’m not looking at options right now. We want to find definitively who did this.”

Britain and Germany agreed they needed to work with international partners to form a collective response and de-escalate tensions as efforts continued to establish exactly what happened, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Iran nuclear pact, which European parties are trying to salvage, is one building block “we need to get back to”.

Saudi Arabia, which has supported tougher U.S. sanctions on Iran, said an initial investigation showed the strikes were carried out with Iranian weapons.

INVESTIGATION

Riyadh asked international experts to join its investigation, which indicates the attack did not come from Yemen, the foreign ministry said. U.S. officials say they believe it came from the opposite direction, possibly from Iran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Yemenis had launched the strikes in retaliation for attacks by a Saudi-led coalition that has been battling the Houthis for four years. Riyadh says Tehran arms the group, which has fired missiles and drones on Saudi cities, a charge both deny.

King Salman, heading a cabinet meeting on Monday, said Riyadh would handle the consequences of “cowardly attacks” that target vital Saudi installations, world crude supplies and global economic stability. The cabinet urged the world to confront those threats “regardless of their origin”.

The assault damaged the world’s biggest crude oil processing plant, triggering the largest jump in oil prices in decades. It was the worst such attack on regional oil facilities since Saddam Hussein torched Kuwait’s oil wells during the 1990-91 Gulf war.

However, dollar-denominated bonds issued by the Saudi government and Aramco rebounded on Tuesday, in a sign investors’ concern may be abating.

Trump said he was sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia soon, but he had not made any commitments to protect the Saudis. “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them.”

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Reuters teams in London, Dubai, Riyadh, Cairo, Berlin, Paris, Singapore and New Delhi; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Giles Elgood and Andrew Cawthorne)

U.S. blames Iran for Saudi oil attack, Trump says ‘locked and loaded’

A satellite image shows an apparent drone strike on an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia September 14, 2019. Planet Labs Inc/Handout via REUTERS

By Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday the United States was “locked and loaded” for a potential response to the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, after a senior U.S. administration official said Iran was to blame.

Trump also authorized the use of the U.S. emergency oil stockpile to ensure stable supplies after the attack, which shut 5% of world production and sent crude prices soaring more than 19% in early trade on Monday, before moderating to show a 10% gain.

“There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Trump said on Twitter.

Earlier in the day, a senior U.S. official told reporters that evidence from the attack, which hit the world’s biggest oil-processing facility, indicated Iran was behind it, instead of the Yemeni Houthi group that had claimed responsibility.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said there was no evidence the attack came from Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis for over four years in a conflict widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Muslim rival Iran.

“Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” Pompeo said.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi dismissed the U.S. allegations that it was responsible was “pointless”. A senior Revolutionary Guards commander warned the Islamic Republic was ready for “full-fledged” war.

“All American bases and their aircraft carriers in a distance of up to 2,000 kilometers around Iran are within the range of our missiles,” the semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Commander Amirali Hajizadeh as saying.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran were already running high because of a long-running dispute between the two nations over Iran’s nuclear program that led the United States to impose sweeping sanctions.

Oil prices surged as much as 19% in early Asian trade on Monday on worries over global supply and soaring tensions in the Middle East.

Brent crude posted its biggest intra-day percentage gain since the start of the Gulf War in 1991.

State oil giant Saudi Aramco said the attack on Saturday had cut output by 5.7 million barrels per day.

The U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said on Sunday there were 19 points of impact in the attack on Saudi facilities and evidence showed the launch area was west-northwest of the targets – not south from Yemen.

The official added that Saudi officials indicated they had seen signs that cruise missiles were used in the attack, which is inconsistent with the Iran-aligned Houthi group’s claim that it conducted the attack with 10 drones.

“There’s no doubt that Iran is responsible for this. No matter how you slice it, there’s no escaping it. There’s no other candidate,” the official told reporters.

Riyadh has accused Iran of being behind previous attacks on oil-pumping stations and the Shaybah oil field, charges that Tehran denies, but has not blamed anyone for Saturday’s strike. Riyadh also says Tehran arms the Houthis, a charge both deny.

Richard Nephew, a program director at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said if Iran was responsible for the attack, it may be as retribution for U.S. sanctions.

“They are making decisions about whether and how to respond to what they see as a massive attack on their interests from the U.S. via sanctions by attacking U.S. interests in turn, and those of U.S. partners they believe are responsible for U.S. policy,” he said.

Aramco gave no timeline for output resumption. A source close to the matter told Reuters the return to full oil capacity could take “weeks, not days”.

Riyadh said it would compensate for the damage at its facilities by drawing on its stocks, which stood at 188 million barrels in June, according to official data.

Trump said he had “authorized the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, if needed, in a to-be-determined amount sufficient to keep the markets well-supplied.”

CALLS FOR RESTRAINT

Consultancy Rapidan Energy Group said images of the Abqaiq facility after the attack showed about five of its stabilization towers appeared to have been destroyed, and would take months to rebuild – something that could curtail output for a prolonged period.

“However Saudi Aramco keeps some redundancy in the system to maintain production during maintenance,” Rapidan added, meaning operations could return to pre-attack levels sooner.

The Saudi bourse closed down 1.1% on Sunday, with banking and petrochemical shares taking the biggest hit. Saudi petrochemical firms announced a significant reduction in feedstock supplies.

“Abqaiq is the nerve center of the Saudi energy system. Even if exports resume in the next 24 to 48 hours, the image of invulnerability has been altered,” Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, told Reuters.

Some Iraqi media outlets said the attack came from there. Baghdad denied that on Sunday and vowed to punish anyone using Iraq, where Iran-backed paramilitary groups wield increasing power, as a launchpad for attacks.

Kuwait, which borders Iraq, said it was investigating the sighting of a drone over its territory and coordinating with Saudi Arabia and other countries.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned Saturday’s attacks and called on all parties to exercise restraint and prevent any escalation. The European Union warned the strikes posed a real threat to regional security, and several nations urged restraint.

The attack came after Trump said a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was possible at the U.N. General Assembly in New York this month. Tehran ruled out talks until sanctions are lifted.

But Trump appeared on Sunday to play down the chances he might be willing to meet with Iranian officials, saying reports he would do so without conditions were not accurate.

As recently as last Tuesday, Pompeo said Trump “is prepared to meet with no preconditions”.

Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Trump that Riyadh was ready to deal with “terrorist aggression”. A Saudi-led coalition has responded to past Houthi attacks with airstrikes on the group’s military sites in Yemen.

The conflict has been in military stalemate for years. The Saudi alliance has air supremacy but has come under scrutiny over civilian deaths and a humanitarian crisis that has left millions facing starvation.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed; Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal and Parisa Hafezi, Saeed Azhar and Hadeel Al Sayegh in Dubai, David Shepardson and Timothy Gardner in Washington, William James in London, John Irish in Paris, Alex Lawler, Julia Payne and Ron Bousso in London, Robin Emmott in Brussels and Devika Krishna Kumar and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by William Maclean, Peter Cooney & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Trump imposes new U.S. sanctions on Iran, including supreme leader

U.S. President Donald Trump displays an executive order imposing fresh sanctions on Iran in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Steve Holland and Stephen Kalin

WASHINGTON/RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump imposed new U.S. sanctions on Iran on Monday following Tehran’s downing of an unmanned American drone and said the measures would target Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Trump told reporters he was signing an executive order for the sanctions amid tensions between the United States and Iran that have grown since May, when Washington ordered all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil.

Trump also said the sanctions would have been imposed regardless of the incident over the drone. He said the supreme leaders was ultimately responsible for what Trump called “the hostile conduct of the regime.”

“Sanctions imposed through the executive order … will deny the Supreme Leader and the Supreme Leader’s office, and those closely affiliated with him and the office, access to key financial resources and support,” Trump said.

The Trump administration wants to force Tehran to open talks on its nuclear and missile programs and its activities in the region.

Iran said on Monday U.S. cyber attacks on its military had failed, as Washington sought to rally support in the Middle East and Europe for a hardline stance that has brought it to the verge of conflict with its longtime foe.

Washington has blamed Tehran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf in recent weeks, which Iran denies. On Monday, the United States said it was building a coalition with allies to protect Gulf shipping lanes.

A coalition of nations would provide both material and financial contributions to the program, a senior U.S. State Department official said, without identifying the countries.

“It’s about proactive deterrence, because the Iranians just want to go out and do what they want to do and say hey we didn’t do it. We know what they’ve done,” the official told reporters, adding that the deterrents would include cameras, binoculars and ships.

The United States accuses Iran of encouraging allies in Yemen to attack Saudi targets.

In a joint statement on Monday, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Britain expressed concern over Middle East tensions and the dangers posed by Iranian “destabilizing activity” to peace and security in Yemen and the region.

The confrontation between Iran and the United States heated up last Thursday when Iran shot down an American drone, saying it had flown over its air space.

Washington, which said the drone was in international skies, then appeared to come close to attacking Iranian military targets, with Trump saying that he aborted a retaliatory air strike 10 minutes before it was to go ahead.

Trump said he decided the strike, to punish Iran for shooting down the drone, would have killed too many people.

U.S. media have reported that Washington launched cyber attacks last week even as Trump called off his air strike. The Washington Post said on Saturday that the cyber strikes, which had been planned previously, had disabled Iranian rocket launch systems. U.S. officials have declined to comment.

FEARS OF WAR

Iran dismissed the cyber attacks as a failure.

“They try hard, but have not carried out a successful attack,” Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister for information and communications technology, said on Twitter.

“Media asked if the claimed cyber attacks against Iran are true,” he said. “Last year we neutralized 33 million attacks with the (national) firewall.”

Allies of the United States have been calling for steps to defuse the crisis, saying they fear a small mistake by either side could trigger war.

“We are very concerned. We don’t think either side wants a war, but we are very concerned that we could get into an accidental war and we are doing everything we can to ratchet things down,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jetted to the Middle East to discuss Iran with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two Gulf Arab allies that favor a hard line. Pompeo met King Salman as well as the king’s son, de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The U.S. special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, visited Oman and was headed to Europe to explain U.S. policy to allies. He told European reporters on a phone call ahead of his arrival that Trump was willing to sit down with Iran, but that Iran must do a deal before sanctions could be lifted.

CONCESSIONS

U.S.-Iran relations have deteriorated over the past year since the United States abandoned a 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

U.S. allies in Europe and Asia view Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal as a mistake that strengthens hardliners in Iran and weakens the pragmatic faction of President Hassan Rouhani.

France, Britain and Germany have sent an official diplomatic warning to Iran if Tehran reduces its compliance with the accord, two European diplomats said on Monday.

It was not immediately clear what consequences Iran might face for non-compliance.

Washington argues that the agreement known as the JCPOA, negotiated under Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, did not go far enough, and new sanctions are needed to force Iran back to the table to make more concessions.

Both sides have suggested they are willing to hold talks while demanding the other side move first. In the latest comment from Tehran, an adviser to Rouhani repeated a longstanding demand that Washington lift sanctions before any talks.

But the adviser, Hesameddin Ashena, also tweeted a rare suggestion that Iran could be willing to discuss new concessions, if Washington were willing to put new incentives on the table that go beyond those in the deal.

“If they want something beyond the JCPOA, they should offer something beyond the JCPOA; with international guarantees.”

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Stephen Kalin in Jeddah; Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Peter Graff and Grant McCool; Editing by Jon Boyle and Howard Goller)

Cholera surge stalks Yemen’s hungry and displaced

A girl, cholera patient, lies on a bed as she receives medical care at a health center in the village of Islim, in the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alrage

By Eissa al-Rajehy

HAJJAH, Yemen (Reuters) – In the last two weeks Dr Asmahan Ahmed has seen a surge in suspected cholera cases arriving at her health center in Abs, a small, Houthi-held town in northwest Yemen.

“Every day there are 30-50 cases, no fewer. Suddenly it became like this,” she said in the 15-bed diarrhea treatment center.

Yemen is suffering its third major cholera outbreak since 2015 when a Saudi-led military coalition intervened to try to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government after it was ousted from power in the capital Sanaa by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement.

The conflict has put 10 million people at risk of famine in the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.

Cholera causes profuse diarrhea and fluid loss which can kill within hours. Children, the elderly and those weakened by years of poor nutrition are most at risk.

The World Health Organization said last week that Yemen had seen more than 724,000 suspected cholera cases and 1,135 deaths this year, but that case numbers had stabilized in recent weeks.

In the clinic, limp children’s faces are covered with flies and their chests heave as they breathe while receiving intravenous fluid tubes in their feet and wrists.

Children pull water from a water well in the village of Islim in the northern province of Hajjah, Yemen, June 9, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

Children pull water from a water well in the village of Islim in the northern province of Hajjah, Yemen, June 9, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

The recent influx means some patients are forced to lie on the floor and the center has run out of some medicines.

Cholera is spread through dirty water, which more and more Yemenis are forced to drink as water resources are scarce in the poorest Arabian Peninsula nation.

Pumps are needed in many parts of the country of 30 million people to bring water to the surface. Fuel shortages have dramatically increased clean water prices.

“We rely on wells which are uncovered and very dirty … We and livestock drink from these wells, as do children,” said Qassem Massoud, a young man standing at a rural well where people haul water up using plastic containers on string.

Others fill containers from a muddy pool as donkeys drink alongside.

Dr Abdelwahab al-Moayad said Yemen’s internally displaced were particularly at risk.

“The number of cases are increasing by the day and if it continues we would consider it a humanitarian disaster,” he said.

A breakthrough in U.N.-led peace efforts last December, the first in more than two years, had sparked hope for improved humanitarian and aid access.

But implementation of a ceasefire and a troop withdrawal initiative in the main port of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions, has dragged on for six months. Violence has continued in other parts of Yemen.

Since the deal, more than 255,000 people have been displaced, U.N. migration agency figures show.

The Houthis, who say their revolution is against corruption, control the biggest population centers. The Saudi-backed government is based in the southern port of Aden.

(Reporting by Reuters TV in Yemen; writing by Lisa Barrington; editing by Jason Neely)

U.S. senators say Saudi crown prince has gone ‘full gangster’

Retired four-star Army General John Abizaid testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Retired Army General John Abizaid, U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia, defended the U.S.-Saudi relationship on Wednesday as lawmakers accused the kingdom of a litany of misdeeds and criticized its crown prince as going “full gangster.”

Senators at Abizaid’s confirmation hearing, Trump’s fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, condemned the kingdom’s conduct in the civil war in Yemen, heavy-handed diplomacy and rights abuses including torturing women’s rights activists and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Abizaid called for accountability for the murder of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, and support for human rights, but repeatedly stressed the importance of Washington-Riyadh ties.

Despite increasing tension between the two countries, the United States has not had an ambassador there since Trump became president in January 2017.

“In the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia,” Abizaid told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It is in our interests to make sure that the relationship is sound.”

Abizaid, a retired four-star Army general, led U.S. Central Command during the Iraq war. Expected to easily win Senate confirmation, he was praised by senators from both parties at the hearing.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Riyadh government, was killed at a Saudi consulate in Turkey in October. His death fueled simmering discontent in Washington over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and heavy civilian casualties in Yemen’s civil war, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The House of Representatives has passed a war powers resolution that would end all U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, but Abizaid said the Trump administration believes strongly that U.S. support should continue.

“Doing so bolsters the self-defense capabilities of our partners and reduces the risk of harm to civilians,” Abizaid said.

‘FULL GANGSTER’

The measure passed the Senate last year, but must go through the chamber again this year to be sent to the White House, where Trump is expected to issue a veto. However, its support in Congress is considered a strong rebuke of Riyadh.

Lawmakers have been strongly critical of Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince. Some blame him for Khashoggi’s killing and other human rights abuses.

Eleven suspects have been indicted in Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder, and last month a top Saudi official rejected accusations that the crown prince ordered the killing.

Republican Senator Jim Risch, the committee’s chairman, said Washington needed to send a strong message to Saudi Arabia about actions that he said are complicating the relationship.

“It’s going to have to be addressed by the Saudis and by the Crown Prince,” Risch said.

“The Crown Prince has launched Saudi Arabia into a devastating war in Yemen, isolated Qatar, threatening Gulf cooperation and coordination against threats from Iran and regional terrorist groups, detained and tortured members of his own family and effectively hoodwinked and intimidated the Lebanese prime minister,” said Senator Bob Menendez, the committee’s top Democrat.

As Abizaid’s hearing continued, at least two Republicans said bin Salman had gone “full gangster.”

One, Republican Marco Rubio, cited a long list of actions including the imprisonment of women’s rights activists and the 2017 detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.

Abizaid said in prepared remarks that the Islamic State militant group has been “nearly vanquished on the ground,” but remains a “potent threat” to the United States and its allies.

While contradicted by some U.S. military and intelligence officials, Trump has declared that Islamic State has been driven out of all its territory since announcing in December that he would withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. He claimed that U.S.-led forces had succeeded in their mission to defeat the militant group.

Since then, Trump has decided to leave hundreds of U.S. troops in the country over the longer run.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Starving girl shows impact of Yemen war, economic collapse

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

HAJJAH, Yemen (Reuters) – Displaced by war, starving and living under a tree, 12-year-old Fatima Qoba weighed just 10kg when she was carried into a Yemeni malnutrition clinic.

“All the fat reserves in her body have been used up, she is left only with bones,” Makiah al-Aslami, a doctor and head of the clinic in northwest Yemen. “She has the most extreme form of malnutrition.”

Qoba’s slide into starvation is typical of what is happening in much of Yemen, where war and economic collapse have driven around 10 million people to the brink of famine, according to the United Nations.

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019. Picture taken February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

Aslami said she is expecting more and more malnutrition cases to come through her door. This month she is treating more than 40 pregnant women with severe malnutrition.

“So in the coming months I expect I will have 43 underweight children,” she said.

She said that since the end of 2018, 14 deaths from malnutrition had occurred at her clinic alone.

Qoba, her 10 siblings and father were forced from their home near the border with Saudi Arabia and forced to live under a tree, Qoba’s older sister, also called Fatima, told Reuters.

She said they were fleeing bombardment from the Saudi-led coalition, which intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after the Houthi-movement ousted it from power in the capital Sanaa in 2014.

“We don’t have money to get food. All we have is what our neighbors and relatives give us,” the sister said. Their father, in his 60s, is unemployed. “He sits under the tree and doesn’t move.”  

“If we stayed here and starved no one would know about us. We don’t have a future,” she said.

After trying two other hospitals which could not help, a relative found the money to transport Qoba to the clinic in Houthi-controlled Aslam, one of Yemen’s poorest districts with high malnutrition levels.

Lying on green hospital sheets, Qoba’s skin is papery, her eyes huge and her skeletal frame encased in a loose orange dress. A health worker feeds her a pale mush from a bowl.

Aslami said the girl needed a month of treatment to build up her body and mind.

The United Nations is trying to implement a ceasefire and troop withdrawal from Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah, where most of Yemen’s imports come from. But violence continues to displace people in other parts of the country, and cut access routes for food, fuel and aid.

There is food in Yemen, but severe inflation has eroded people’s ability to buy it, and the non-payment of government worker salaries has left many households without incomes.

“It’s a disaster on the edge of famine … Yemeni society and families are exhausted,” Aslami said. “The only solution is to stop the war.”

(This version of the story has been refiled to remove extraneous word “they” in paragraph six)

(Reporting by Reuters team in Yemen; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alison Williams)

Houthi drones kill several at Yemeni military parade

Soldiers inspect the scene of a Houthi drone attack at Yemeni government military parade in al-Anad air base, Lahaj province, Yemen January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

ADEN (Reuters) – Drones belonging to the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement on Thursday attacked a Yemeni government military parade in the southern province of Lahaj, killing several people, Saudi and Houthi media reported.

The attack comes as the United Nations tries to get peace talks going between the Houthis who control northern Yemen and the Saudi-backed government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi by overseeing a limited ceasefire in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah.

The parade was taking place inside a military base in al-Anad district when an explosion rocked the area, eyewitnesses said. They said high-ranking officers including Yemen’s deputy chief of staff had been wounded.

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV said five people had been killed and several injured. Houthi Al-Masirah TV said the attack had been aimed at “the leadership of the invaders”.

A military source said the focus of the attack had been the podium where senior officers were sitting.

It was unclear if officers were present from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, leaders of a Sunni Muslim Arab coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try to restore Hadi’s government, which had been ousted from the capital Sanaa in 2014.

The Houthis said in November they were halting drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their Yemeni allies, but tensions have risen recently over how to implement the U.N.-sponsored deal in Hodeidah.

The Houthis and the Saudi-backed government agreed to stop fighting and withdraw forces at peace talks in Sweden in December following months of diplomacy and Western pressure.

The ceasefire only applies to Hodeidah province but the British ambassador to Yemen, Michael Aron, tweeted on Thursday that an escalation anywhere in Yemen “goes against the spirit of the Stockholm agreement”.

Implementation of the deal, the first breakthrough in peace efforts in five years, has stalled as the sides disagree on who will control the city of Hodeidah after the withdrawal.

Yemen descended into war after pro-democracy unrest forced late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Hadi was elected to head a transitional government but after the Houthis took Sanaa he went into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis deny getting any help from Iran and say they are waging a revolution against corruption.

(Reporting By Mohammed Ghobari and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Explainer: Is Yemen finally on the road to peace?

FILE PHOTO: Boys walk amid ruins of houses during the conflict in the northwestern city of Saada, Yemen November 22, 2018. Picture taken November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma/File Photo

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Mohammed Ghobari

DUBAI/ADEN (Reuters) – Weeks of U.N. shuttle diplomacy and Western pressure delivered a breakthrough in Yemen peace efforts when the warring parties last week agreed to cease fighting in a contested Red Sea port city and withdraw forces.

The challenge lies in securing an orderly troop withdrawal from Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis facing starvation, amid deep mistrust among the parties.

At the same time, the United Nations must prepare for critical discussions on a wider truce and a framework for political negotiations to end the conflict.

The nearly four-year-old war, which has killed tens of thousands of people, pits the Iran-aligned Houthi group against other Yemeni factions fighting alongside the Saudi-led coalition trying to restore the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The Houthis, who ousted Hadi’s administration from the capital Sanaa in 2014, and their coalition foes are due to start implementing the Hodeidah ceasefire on Tuesday.

Coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are under pressure from Western allies including the United States and Britain, which supply arms and intelligence to the Sunni Muslim alliance, to end the war as Riyadh comes under scrutiny after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

People gather near stalls with used tools on a street in Hodeidah, Yemen December 15, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

People gather near stalls with used tools on a street in Hodeidah, Yemen December 15, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

WHY IS HODEIDAH SO IMPORTANT?

It is the main port used to feed Yemen’s 30 million people and has been the focus of fighting this year, raising global fears that a full-scale assault could cut off supply lines and lead to mass starvation. The war and the ensuing economic collapse has left 15.9 million people facing severe hunger.

The Houthis currently control the city. Coalition-backed Yemeni forces have massed on the outskirts in an offensive aimed at seizing the seaport. Their aim is to weaken the group by cutting off its main supply line.

The alliance bogged down in a military stalemate, also wants to secure the coast along the Red Sea, one of the most important trade routes in the world for oil tankers.

The coalition captured the southern port of Aden in 2015 and a string of ports on the western coast, but the Houthis control most towns and cities in Yemen, including Hodeidah and Sanaa.

Analysts say implementing the agreement is important, as any lapse in momentum could be used by the coalition as a justification to resume its offensive on Hodeidah.

WHERE DO THINGS STAND NOW?

Griffiths said when the deal was announced on Thursday that troop withdrawal from the port should begin “within days” and later from the city. International monitors would be deployed and all armed forces would pull back completely within 21 days.

The UAE has massed thousands of Yemeni forces — drawn from southern separatists, local units from the Red Sea coastal plain and a battalion led by a nephew of late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh — on the outskirts of Hodeidah.

A U.N.-chaired committee including both sides would oversee the withdrawal of forces. The United Nations has said it would play a leading role in the port, but the agreement did not spell out who would run the city.

In remarks illustrating the risks of a resumption of the bloodshed in Hodeidah, each side has said the city would ultimately fall under their control.

Griffiths has asked the U.N. Security Council to urgently pass a resolution backing deployment of a robust monitoring regime, headed by retired Dutch Major General Patrick Cammaert.

The envoy is also working on securing other confidence-building steps hanging over from the peace talks, including reopening Sanaa airport and supporting the central bank.

WHAT’S THE NEXT STEP TO PEACE?

A second round of talks is due to be held in January on a framework for negotiations and transitional governing body.

The Houthis, who have no traction in the south, want a meaningful role in Yemen’s government and to rebuild their stronghold of Saada in the north of the country, analysts said.

The analysts say Saudi Arabia can live with a Houthi political role as long as they disarm. Riyadh says it does not want a military movement like Lebanon’s Iran-allied Hezbollah near its borders.

“Moving forward, the inclusion of key factions that have so far been excluded from the process will be key,” said Adam Baron of the European Council for Foreign Relations.

Yemen’s fractious armed groups and parties, numerous before the war, have proliferated further since 2015, and each has their own agenda. The war also revived old strains between North and South Yemen, formerly separate countries which united into a single state in 1990 under slain former president Saleh.

Southern separatists resented concentration of resources in the north. Some of the Shi’ite Zaydi sect chafed as their north heartland became impoverished and in the late 1990s formed the Houthi group, which fought the army and forged ties with Iran. Jihadists set up an al Qaeda wing.

Mass pro-democracy protests in 2011 forced Saleh to step down after some of his former allies turned on him and the army split. His deputy Hadi was elected to a two-year term to oversee a democratic transition but was undermined.

In 2014, the Houthis seized Sanaa aided by Saleh loyalists, forcing Hadi to share power. When a federal constitution was proposed, both Houthis and southern separatists rejected it.

The Houthis arrested Hadi in 2015, but he escaped and fled to Aden. The coalition then entered the war on Hadi’s side.

(Additional reporting and writing by Ghaida Ghantous, Editing by William Maclean)

Republicans set resolution blaming Saudi prince for journalist’s death

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pictured during his meeting with Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and officials in Algiers, Algeria December 2, 2018. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee said he would introduce on Thursday legislation holding Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and insisting on accountability for those responsible for his death.

Despite President Donald Trump’s desire to maintain close relations with Saudi Arabia, the joint resolution is backed by at least nine of his fellow Republicans in the Senate: committee Chairman Bob Corker and co-sponsors including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The measure also warns that the kingdom’s purchases of military equipment from, and cooperation with, the governments of Russia and China challenge the integrity of the U.S.-Saudi military relationship.

The measure is expected to come up for a vote in the Senate, but must also pass the House of Representatives and be signed by Trump, or win enough votes to overcome a veto, to take effect.

House Republican leaders declined to say whether they planned to vote on any Saudi-related legislation before Congress wraps up for the year later this month.

Among other provisions, the joint resolution blames the crown prince for Khashoggi’s murder in Turkey, calls for the Saudi government to ensure “appropriate accountability” for all those responsible for his death, calls on Riyadh to release Saudi women’s rights activists and encourages the kingdom to increase efforts to enact economic and social reforms.

And it declares that there is no statutory authorization for U.S. involvement in hostilities in Yemen’s civil war and supports the end of air-to-air refueling of Saudi-led coalition aircraft operating in Yemen.

The Senate is due to vote later on Thursday on a separate Saudi Arabia measure, a war powers resolution that would end all U.S. involvement with the coalition involved in the Yemen War. That measure would need to pass the House and survive a threatened Trump veto to become law.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)