GAO: The US has not been able to trace whether weapons were used against Yemeni civilians

GAO: The US has not been able to trace whether weapons were used against Yemeni civilians

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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon and State Department have failed to investigate whether a Saudi-led coalition used US-provided military support to conduct any of the repeated airstrikes and other attacks that have allegedly killed civilians in Yemen, according to a U.S. government report released on Wednesday.

Criticism of civilian casualties in Saudi-led coalition airstrikes that have at times hit wedding ceremonies, funerals, hospitals and other gatherings of civilians has clouded US arms sales and other military support to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, since the two started a war in Yemen in 2015.

The now seven-year war has failed in its aim of driving out Iran-allied Houthi rebels who have seized control of the Yemeni capital Sana’a and much of the rest of northern Yemen. With US, UN and other international mediation, all parties to the conflict this spring and summer came together in what US officials say is a promising but fragile ceasefire.

The release of the Government Accountability Office’s critical report comes the day after the White House confirmed President Joe Biden is planning a trip to Saudi Arabia in July to strengthen ties with the oil-producing kingdom.

High oil and gasoline prices are helping to fuel inflation in the US and are threatening the prospects of Biden’s Democrats and Biden himself in the upcoming election. Israel and other allies have also urged the US president to improve ties with the Saudis and de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the interests of regional security.

Biden took office by denouncing Saudi Arabia over the deaths of non-combatants in Yemen and the 2018 killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. US intelligence says Prince Mohammed may have ordered Khashoggi’s assassination.

Biden promised early in his tenure that the United States would withhold any offensive US military aid to Saudi Arabia.

News organizations and human rights groups have cited repeated civilian deaths attributed to coalition airstrikes, and UN investigators have corroborated several of the reports. The attacks include a coalition-led airstrike on a school bus in 2018 that killed at least 26 children, according to Human Rights Watch.

The US says it has been working to train Saudi forces on improved targets and other best practices to minimize harm to innocent civilians.

The United Nations estimates that more than 18,000 civilians were killed or injured in about 23,000 airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen from March 2015 to August 2021.

The Houthi rebels are also frequently accused of human rights abuses, including forcing children to fight and profiting from food and fuel much-needed by civilians. Yemen is by far the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula. Aid groups and international organizations say the war has significantly deepened the food insecurity of millions of people there.

GAO, an independent watchdog tasked with assisting government oversight, examined how well the US government has tracked each role involved in the extensive US military aid to its two strategic Gulf partners, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates civilian deaths.

Congress commissioned GAO’s report Wednesday last year.

The US has provided more than $54 billion in military assistance — from missiles and aircraft to maintenance and training — to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from 2015 to 2021, GAO said.

State Department officials told GAO investigators that they consider civilian damage and equipment use when weighing U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the report said.

“In addition,[Department of Defense]and state officials said they made some efforts to understand the extent to which US-origin defense items were being used in Yemen,” the report said.

“Despite multiple reports that airstrikes and other attacks by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen caused significant civilian damage, the Ministry of Defense has not reported and the state has been unable to provide evidence that there have been incidents of possible unauthorized use of post equipment transferred to Saudi Arabia or the UAE,” GAO investigators said.

In a written response to GAO investigators, State Department Comptroller Jeffrey Mounts disputed GAO’s overall conclusion. Mounts wrote that the State Department had provided government oversight documentation of possible involvement of US weapons in attacks that claimed civilian lives or struck civilian infrastructure.

However, GAO investigators said the documents provided by the State Department did not change their conclusion.

The report also quoted U.S. military Central Command officials as saying, “They do not know how DOD security cooperation officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would obtain the information needed to determine whether defense items were U.S -American origin in Yemen by Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates were anything but legitimate “military” targets.

In front of the Saudi embassy on Wednesday, Washington, DC local government officials and advocates for the rights of Saudi Arabia and Yemen unveiled a street sign that renamed the block in front of the embassy “Jamal Khashoggi Way.”

Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize laureate, accused Biden at the street ceremony of planning to meet with Prince Mohammed, widely known by his initials.

“If you meet MBS, will that serve peace in Yemen?” she asked Biden. “Absolutely not.”

Asked for comment Wednesday, the State Department outlined steps to minimize casualties, but added that “we recognize there is still work to be done.” Saudi embassy and Pentagon spokesmen did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the GAO report.

The State Department told GAO what steps it had taken to comply with Biden’s 2021 directive that the US only provide defensive support to Saudi Arabia, as opposed to material that would help it fight its war in Yemen. That includes the Foreign Ministry directing Saudi Arabia to use new air-to-air missiles only against cross-border airstrikes and not to hit ground targets, the report said.

The State Department said it had “paused” two more munitions sales over concerns about civilian harm.

The version of the report released on Wednesday contains what the government says is classified material from the original version, which has not been released.

The withheld material consisted of “a relatively small amount of information” about the Pentagon’s advisory work and the State Department’s internal decision-making, said Jason Bair, director of GAO’s Office of International Affairs and Trade.