A bipartisan group of Congressional lawmakers are demanding more information before they're willing to sign off on a major weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, citing concerns over civilian casualties in Yemen.
The move comes in response to reports that the Trump administration could take on a more direct engagement in Yemen's devastating two-year civil war. At issue is the sale of America's so-called precision weapons—or "smart bombs"—to Saudi Arabia, which has been leading an air campaign to help reinstate Yemen's internationally recognized president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
BuzzFeed reports the 31 House Representatives signed a letter to express skepticism about the plan to sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weaponry to the Saudi government. The Saudis have been accused of ignoring "Washington’s instructions to avoid targets that resulted in civilian casualties," BuzzFeed reported.
The bipartisan group is asking Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis to disclose what steps the U.S. military is taking with the Saudi government to prevent civilian casualties. That includes more information about whether Saudi forces are staying away from areas listed by the U.S. as "no-strike" zones. Legislators also seek more clarification on what role U.S. military personnel are playing on the ground in Yemen.
The letter comes amid mounting concern by international aid organizations about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Broadly speaking, the war pits allies of the Yemeni government against supporters of the country's former president, along with separatists known as the Houthis—who are believed to be backed by Iran. There's also mounting concern that the fighting is creating an opportunity for a local al-Qaeda affiliate to gain ground.
The United Nations says more than 60 percent of the 7,600 civilians who have died in the fighting were killed by Saudi air strikes, with thousands more displaced from their homes. An analysis conducted by the Guardian found that as many as one in three air strikes hit civilian targets such as schools, hospitals and mosques.
Even before the conflict, Yemen was considered one of the poorest countries in the region—unlike the wealthy Middle Eastern neighbors backing the proxy war within its borders. Aid groups say the violence has made the situation on the ground there much worse—particularly for children. Already, millions of Yemenis are in danger because the conflict has cut off their access to food or basic health care. Amnesty International says more than 18 million Yemenis now depend on humanitarian aid in order to get by.
The United States has already ramped up its presence on the ground in Yemen since President Donald Trump took office—including dozens of air strikes against al-Qaeda targets and a controversial military raid that left a Navy SEAL dead.