US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that he certified to Congress that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were working to reduce civilian casualties in Yemen, avoiding a limitation on US help for its ally Saudi Arabia.
Without the certification, US tanker aircraft would have been restricted in the refueling of Saudi-led coalition aircraft conducting strikes against Houthi rebels backed by Iran.
Pompeo’s decision drew the derision of critics of the Saudi-led air campaign, which has long been denounced even by Western allies for causing massive civilian casualties and driving Yemen to the brink of famine.
The 3-year-old war in Yemen, widely seen as a proxy battle between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, has killed more than 10,000 people.
Pompeo said in a statement he advised Congress on Tuesday 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.”
He provided no details of the measures taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE that underpinned his decision.
Last month, a Saudi airstrike on a bus killed dozens of people, including 40 children.
“Pompeo’s ‘certification’ is a farce. The Saudis deliberately bombed a bus full of children. There is only one moral answer, and that is to end our support for their intervention in Yemen,” Democratic US Representative Ro Khanna said in a post on Twitter.
US lawmakers, concerned about a growing humanitarian disaster in Yemen, required Pompeo to certify by Wednesday that the Saudis and the UAE were taking meaningful measures to reduce civilian casualties and allow humanitarian aid deliveries.
Without the move by Pompeo, US aircraft would have been barred from refueling Saudi-led coalition aircraft in mid-air except when they were striking Yemeni factions of al Qaeda and Islamic State, the Houthis’ use of ballistic missiles, or protecting US military units and international commercial shipping.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis said he backed Pompeo’s finding.
Saudi Arabia is leading a Western-backed alliance of Sunni Muslim Arab states to try to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, ousted from the capital Sanaa by the Iran-aligned Houthis in 2015.
An attempt to convene UN-mediated peace talks in Geneva collapsed last weekend after the Houthi delegation failed to show up for three days.
The United States and other Western powers provide arms and intelligence to the alliance. Human rights groups have criticized them over coalition air strikes that have killed hundreds of civilians at hospitals, schools and markets.
“The coalition has promised over and over again to end unlawful attacks, to credibly investigate, to provide civilian victims redress. It hasn’t, instead continuing to bomb weddings, homes, markets, a bus filled with children just a month ago,” said Kristine Beckerle of Human Rights Watch.
The Pentagon believes that its assistance, which includes refueling coalition jets and training in targeting, helps reduce civilian casualties.