With Civilian Deaths Rising, Efforts to Block US-Saudi Arms Sale Gain Steam

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With Civilian Deaths Rising, Efforts to Block US-Saudi Arms Sale Gain Steam

With clock ticking in Congress, US senators prepare push against $1.15 billion arms deal

People stand amidst rubble of a building destroyed by Saudi-led airstrikes on September 8, 2016. At least nine civilians, including several children, died in the attack. (Photo: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)

Opposition is growing on Capitol Hill and beyond to the U.S. government's planned sale of $1.15 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, whose U.S.-backed coalition has wreaked devastation and displacement on the Yemeni population.

Citing "multiple congressional aides," Foreign Policy reported Wednesday that "Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut are preparing legislation, to be filed this week, opposing the U.S. package of tanks, ammunition, and machine guns to Saudi Arabia."

According to Foreign Policy :

The measure is expected to take the form of a non-binding resolution of disapproval that would receive a floor vote in about two weeks. But the two senators are also considering binding legislation that would block the proposed sale if they sense that the measure would pass, according to congressional aides.

This comes on the heels of a letter penned last week by a bipartisan group of 64 House members, calling on the White House "to withdraw the request for congressional approval for the sale until Congress can fully debate American military support for the Saudis," as CNN reported.

Lawmakers may have a little more breathing room to do so than they initially anticipated.

As Foreign Policy explains:

Generally, Congress has 30 days to block the sale of similar military packages of this type, meaning the clock technically could run out as soon as Thursday, as House parliamentarians believe. But Senate experts say the 30 calendar-day deadline does not apply to the upper chamber because it was adjourned for the summer recess.

And political momentum appears to be growing. In a piece published at Common Dreams this week, Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy outlined "four key pieces of evidence that opposing the Saudi arms deal is not futile":

1. On August 17, the New York Times editorial board called for Congress to block the deal. Former Obama Administration official Bruce Riedel says the NYT editorial "got considerable attention in the royal family."

2. On June 16, 49 percent of the House, including 91 percent of Democrats and 17 percent of Republicans, voted to block the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia.

3. On August 31, it was reported that Textron, which had the contract to export cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, had announced it was getting out of the cluster bomb business, citing opposition in Congress to exporting the weapons to Saudi Arabia.

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4. On August 29, 64 Members of the House sent a bipartisan letter to the Administration urging that the Saudi arms deal be postponed.

Multiple petitions are also circulating online, to similar ends.

But as author and arms trade expert William Hartung wrote in a policy brief released Wednesday, "The tank deal is just one small portion of the tens of billions worth of U.S. arms that have been offered to Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the Obama administration."

To be sure, he said, "[t]he salience of the deal derives from its timing, in the midst of Saudi-led intervention in Yemen that has had devastating effects on civilians in that country."

"As long as American tanks and bombs are involved in the conflict, more lives will be lost."
—Scott Paul, Oxfam

"The debate over the deal is about more than just tanks," Hartung argued. "It is about whether the United States will continue to fuel the Saudi war effort without demanding, at a minimum, that the Saudis demonstrate a serious commitment to preventing civilian casualties."

"It's time for the Obama administration to use the best leverage it has—Saudi Arabia's dependence on U.S. weapons and support—to wage the war in Yemen in the first place," Hartung told Reuters on Wednesday. "Pulling back the current offer of battle tanks or freezing some of the tens of billions in weapons and services in the pipeline would send a strong signal to the Saudi leadership that they need stop their indiscriminate bombing campaign and take real steps to prevent civilian casualties."

Indeed, as Oxfam senior humanitarian policy advisor Scott Paul said this week after returning from Yemen: "As long as American tanks and bombs are involved in the conflict, more lives will be lost. Throughout my visit, I was asked repeatedly why the U.S. is bombing Yemen. We're technically not, but we're supporting the Saudi-led coalition that is. I didn't have a good answer."

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that in the U.K., a "concerted attempt has been mounted to water down" a draft report from the Committee of Arms Export Controls that would recommend halting that country's arms trade with Saudi Arabia.

According to Reuters, at least nine civilians, including four children, were killed Thursday in an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition on a residential building north of the Yemeni capital Sana'a.

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