Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has blocked the inclusion of Saudi Arabia on a US list of countries that recruit child soldiers, dismissing his experts' findings that a Saudi-led coalition has been using under-age fighters in Yemen's civil war, according to four people familiar with the matter, reports Reuters.
The decision, which came after a fierce internal debate, could prompt new accusations by human rights advocates and some lawmakers that US President Donald Trump's administration is prioritising security and economic interests in relations with oil-rich Saudi Arabia, a major US ally and arms customer.
Pompeo's move comes amid heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, the Saudis' bitter regional rival.
State Department experts recommended adding Saudi Arabia to the soon-to-be-released list based in part on news reports and human rights groups' assessments that the desert kingdom has hired child fighters from Sudan to fight for the US-backed coalition in Yemen, the four sources said.
The Saudi government, Saudi embassy in Washington and Saudi-led coalition did not respond to requests for comment. The coalition has previously said it was upholding international human rights standards and denied the use of child soldiers.
The experts' recommendation faced resistance from some other State Department officials who, according to three of the sources, argued that it was not clear whether the Sudanese forces were under the control of Sudanese officers or directed by the Saudi-led coalition.
A New York Times report in December cited Sudanese fighters saying their Saudi and United Arab Emirates commanders directed them at a safe distance from the fighting against the coalition's foes, Iran-aligned Houthi militias.
Pompeo rejected the recommendation from the experts, who are from the State Department's anti-human trafficking office, said the four sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. The office has a key role in investigating the use of child soldiers worldwide.
"The United States condemns the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers. We place great importance on ending the practice wherever it occurs," a State Department official said in response to Reuters' questions. The official, however, did not specifically address the Saudi decision or whether any consideration was given to Riyadh's security ties to Washington.
Instead of adding Saudi Arabia to the list, Sudan will be reinstated after being removed last year, three of the sources said.
A spokesman for Sudan's paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which has contributed fighters to the Yemen war, said the force is affiliated with Sudan's military. "Based on Sudanese laws, it does not recruit minors," he said. He did not directly respond to a question on who controlled Sudanese forces in Yemen.
The UAE government did not respond to a request for comment.
The child soldiers list will be part of the State Department's annual global Trafficking in Persons report, which the sources said is expected to be released as early as Thursday.