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Yemen war: Democrats introduce bill to stop US support for Saudi air force

Legislation would prohibit US companies from providing maintenance services for the Saudi jets conducting air strikes in Yemen
Saudi F-15 fighter jets fly in formation with their US Air Force counterparts on 2 June 2019.
Saudi F-15 fighter jets fly in formation with their US Air Force counterparts on 2 June 2019 (AFP)
By MEE staff in Washington

Two prominent House Democrats have introduced legislation that would prohibit US companies from providing maintenance services to the Saudi air force, the latest attempt by lawmakers to reduce Washington's involvement in the devastating seven-year war in Yemen.

The bill, introduced by Congressmen Tom Malinowski and Jim McGovern - who serves as the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission - would for two years prohibit the State Department from granting licences to US companies maintaining aircraft "belonging to military units that carried out offensive air strikes inside Yemen over the last year".

If passed, the measure would only permit maintenance work for US-made aircraft, including Saudi Arabia's fleet of F-15 fighter jets, on the condition they are used exclusively "in a defensive capacity" to target the Houthis' missile and drone capabilities.

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It would also permit Biden the ability to waive the ban on maintenance contracts on a case-by-case basis, however, the difficulty in making the defensive distinction could well cease all US maintenance to Saudi aircraft involved in Yemen.

The bill would also require the administration to provide Congress with quarterly updates on Saudi air strikes in Yemen, and would suspend current maintenance contract licences.

"For over six years, the people of Yemen have suffered from ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity, including air strikes by Saudi Arabia. This is unconscionable and wrong," McGovern said in a statement.

"The Biden administration must send a clear and unambiguous signal to Saudi Arabia: their actions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated by the United States.

"The Saudi jets responsible for killing innocent Yemeni civilians should not be maintained with U.S. government support."

'Inconsistent with US policy'

Yemen, which has been gripped by war since 2015, has lost tens of thousands of civilians to violence, hunger and disease. According to the UN, some 24.1 million people - around 80 percent of the population - rely on humanitarian aid and protection to survive, while 58 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty.

Since 2015, the US has supported the coalition's efforts against the Houthis. However, Washington has dialled down this support following outrage over civilian deaths and other actions by the kingdom, including the 2018 killing of Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The proposed legislation was introduced on Friday exactly a year after Biden announced the US would end offensive support to the Saudi-led coalition.

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Throughout the past year, the White House has continued authorising weapons sales to the kingdom, despite opposition from some lawmakers and activists. 

The introduction of the legislation also comes amid increased escalations in the war in Yemen. The Houthi movement has launched a series of drone attacks on the UAE after Emirati-backed groups pushed into Houthi-held territory.

In response, the Saudi-led coalition has intensified its air campaign on Yemen, conducting several strikes that have resulted in scores of civilian deaths, including one on a detention centre.

Malinowski said that "the Saudi jets that conduct these attacks continue to be maintained and kept in the air under a contract approved by the U.S. government".

"This is inconsistent with the administration's stated policy of avoiding complicity in offensive operations in Yemen, and it needs to end."

Congressional aides told The Washington Post that one possible path for the bill would be to consider it for incorporation in next year's defence spending bill, which will start to come together over the summer.

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