Pompeo: No 'direct' evidence linking MBS to Khashoggi killing

Top Trump administration officials defend US involvement in Yemen, saying downgrading ties with Riyadh would be mistake.

    US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said there was no direct evidence connecting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month in Istanbul.

    Pompeo spoke to reporters on Wednesday after he and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the Senate behind closed doors that weakening US-Saudi ties over the killing would hurt national security.

    "There is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi," Pompeo said. 

    His comments come despite reports that the CIA concluded that Prince Mohammed must have at least known about the plot. CIA Director Gina Haspel was not present during Wednesday's Senate briefing. 

    "The October murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has heightened the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on. But degrading US-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the US and its allies," Pompeo wrote in a blog post shortly before Wednesday's briefing for US senators.

    Pompeo made the case that the Saudis are too important an ally to lose, citing its help to contain Iran in the region, secure democracy in Iraq and fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and other armed groups.

    During the briefing, Mattis said "security interests cannot be dismissed as [the US] seeks accountability ... for Khashoggi's murder", according to remarks sent to reporters. 

    "I must note we are seldom free to work with unblemished partners," he added. 

    Pompeo said the United States' involvement in the Yemen conflict is central to the Trump administration's broader goal of containing Iranian influence in the Middle East.

    "The first mission is to assist the Saudis and the Emiratis in their fight against Iranian-backed Houthi fighters. This conflict isn't optional for Saudi Arabia, and abandoning it puts American interests at risk, too," he said, according to the prepared remarks.

    The US support for the war has come under increased scrutiny since Khashoggi's murder. 

    After offering several contradicting accounts, Saudi Arabia admitted last month that Khashoggi had been killed in its Istanbul consulate on October 2 and his body dismembered.

    Riyadh has said that Prince Mohammed, also known as MBS, had no knowledge of the killing, which Turkey said was ordered at the highest level of Saudi leadership. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ruled out King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, however.

    The murder has strained relations between Saudi Arabia and several other countries, with rights groups and many US politicians calling for Prince Mohammed to be held to account.

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    'Prince is out of control' 

    Wednesday's briefing could determine if and how far Congress goes in punishing the longtime US ally in the Middle East.

    According to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, "some kind of response" is needed from the US for the Saudis' role in the murder.

    The US senators who spoke to reporters after the briefing said they were disappointed that CIA Director Haspel was not present. 

    Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey accused the Trump administration of attempting to "stonewall" the Senate and called the absence of an intelligence official "outrageous".

    Some said the White House blocked her from briefing the Senate, an allegation it denies. 

    Senators called for greater action against the kingdom over Khashoggi's death and the war in Yemen. 

    "When we do not send a message to a country like Saudi Arabia, we are telling an ally they can kill without impunity because they have an interest with us," Menendez told reporters after the briefing. "We are then sending a global message that is frightening and one that does not serve US national interest." 

    Republican Senator Bob Corker said after the briefing it was apparent to everyone in the room that MBS was responsible for Khashoggi's death.

    "We have a problem here. We understand that Saudi Arabia is an ally, of sorts, and a semi important country," said Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We also have a crown prince that's out of control."

    Earlier this month, the US placed economic sanctions on 17 Saudi nationals allegedly involved in Khashoggi's murder.

    Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan said he has asked the Trump administration to brief Congress about the killing of Khashoggi in the next week or two.

    "It's very important, I think, that we speak with moral clarity ... and with respect to holding people accountable, we need to do that," Ryan told reporters at the US Capitol.

    "We have actually requested (for) the administration to come and give a briefing to all members of Congress," he added. "That means there's more to find out and more to do on it."

    Shortly before Wednesday's briefing, Pompeo also announced an additional $131m in additional humanitarian aid for Yemen, which has been struck by food and medicine shortages since the war in Yemen began in 2015.

    The war in Yemen began in September 2014, when Houthi rebels took control of Yemen's capital Sanaa and proceeded to push southwards towards the country's second-biggest city, Aden.

    In response, a Saudi-UAE military coalition, backed by the US, intervened in 2015 with a massive air campaign aimed at reinstalling the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

    According to aid groups, tens of thousands of people have been killed in the war. As per Save the Children, as many as 85,000 children under five "may have died from extreme hunger" or disease since 2015.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies