The US State Department has signed off on the sale of $1.29 billion worth of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, including tens of thousands of bombs that will restock a Saudi arms stockpile depleted by the country's air campaign in Yemen, which has been linked to civilian deaths.
Human rights groups have repeatedly criticized Washington's support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, where the UN says coalition airstrikes have killed more than 1,000 civilians. Monday's announced deal, which still requires rubber stamping from Congress, indicates those concerns have had little effect on weapons sales.
In justifying the sale, the State Department's Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) said approval would "replenish" the stockpiles of the Saudi air force and allow it to "meet current and future threats from potential adversaries during combat operations." The weapons, said the DSCA, would also help to "safeguard the world's largest oil reserves."
The billion dollar deal includes 22,000 smart and general purpose bombs, including models that have been deployed in Yemen. The package includes 8,000 unguided MK-82 "dumb bombs," 1,000 GBU-10 Paveway II Laser Guided Bombs, and more than 5,000 kits that can turn common munitions into ones equipped to use GPS guidance for precision strikes.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the US has sold more than $90 billion in armaments and weapons systems to Saudi Arabia since 2010. Washington has expedited arms sales to the Kingdom since July's Iranian nuclear deal, which Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf countries opposed.
'The Obama administration is now selling to Saudi Arabia even more of the MK-82 bombs that the Saudi-led coalition has already used to kill civilians in Yemen.'
This summer, researchers at Amnesty International reported that MK-82 bombs had been found at the site of attacks that killed civilians, including an unexploded ordnance left intact at a mosque in the village of Waht, were 11 worshippers died in May.
"The Saudi Arabia-led air coalition is engaging in indiscriminate bombing of civilian communities in Yemen, in violation of international law," said Sunjeev Bery, Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty. "The Obama administration is now selling to Saudi Arabia even more of the MK-82 bombs that the Saudi-led coalition has already used to kill civilians in Yemen."
Asked about how the weapons might be deployed, including in Yemen, a State Department official said to talk to the Saudis.
"While we defer to Saudi authorities to speak to both proposed delivery timelines and eventual tactical uses for these munitions, this notification speaks to both long-standing and ongoing US commitment to security in the Gulf region," said the official, who would only speak anonymously because they weren't authorized to discuss the sale with the press.
Echoing a view that multiple American officials and spokespeople have expressed to VICE News in recent months, the official said the US had "asked the Saudi government to investigate all credible reports of civilian casualties resulting from coalition-led airstrikes and, if confirmed, to address the factors that led to them."
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The US has given no indication that it is currently investigating deaths that have resulted from coalition strikes. The Saudis commonly deny that they were in the vicinity of reported airstrikes, even though their coalition is the only airpower in most of Yemen. The US operates a separate drone program meant to target al Qaeda.
The US does not consider itself an official member of the coalition, despite playing an outsized role in its activities. In addition to supplying billions in weapons, the US offers logistical and intelligence support, including the provision of "targeting assistance." American tankers have refueled coalition jets more than 2,100 times since the start of Saudi-led operations in late March.
Both the Saudi coalition and its adversaries — Shia Houthi rebels and their allies loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh — have been accused of gross human rights violations. In October, Amnesty said that the coalition had likely committed war crimes in the northern province of Sadaa, a Houthi stronghold, and called for a cessation of weapons transfers to the Saudis.
"By selling even more bombs to Saudi Arabia, the Obama Administration is complicit in the Saudi Arabian government's continued bombing of civilians in Yemen," said Bery.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford