Human Rights Groups Criticize U.S. Arms Sale To Saudi Arabia : Parallels The U.N. is resuming peace talks on the war in Yemen. At the same time, the U.S. plans to sell more weapons to Saudi Arabia, even as civilian casualties from Saudi airstrikes in Yemen continue.

Human Rights Groups Criticize U.S. Arms Sale To Saudi Arabia

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The U.S. State Department has approved a $1.3 billion weapons deal to Saudi Arabia. Congress still must approve the deal, which seems likely. The sale of arms faces little opposition here in the U.S. This, despite criticism from human rights groups who say the Saudi airstrikes in Yemen have indiscriminately killed and injured thousands of civilians. The Saudis and allies have been at war in Yemen for nine months fighting Houthi rebels who took over the capital and much of the country. NPR's Deborah Amos is in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and joins us now.

And, Deb, what does this $1.3 billion buy?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: It's a big weapons package. Primarily it buys what's known as smart bombs, some 13,000 precision-guided munitions. The star of this package is a weapon system called a JDAM. These are GPS-guided. They're some of the most precise weapon systems that the U.S. produces. The Saudis have been asking for these weapons for months in what Saudi sources here say have been very tense meetings with U.S. officials. I talked to Ford Fraker in Riyadh. He's a former U.S. ambassador, and he sums up the Saudi position this way.

FORD FRAKER: You know, you can imagine them saying to everybody that's criticizing them, look, if we had better weapons, you know, there'd be less casualties. And I think that's probably correct, but I think the whole issue of civilian casualties is not one you're going to eradicate.

CORNISH: But this arms sale also comes as the U.N. is trying to start a round of peace talks to end the fighting, and I gather there's been some criticism about a mixed message, right, approving the weapons sale on the eve of trying to push for these talks?

AMOS: That's what human rights advocates are saying. Human Rights Watch called for the sale to be canceled. Doctors Without Borders has sharply criticized the Saudis after two of their medical clinics were hit in strikes. This was in October and again this month, even after MSF said that they gave the Saudis coordinates. Now, according to the Saudi military spokesman I spoke to today, there are new procedures to investigate these incidents. There's now a committee that includes the Saudi Red Crescent, the Foreign Ministry, military lawyers to look into these allegations. And that's new for the Saudis. Again I talked to Ford Fraker, the former ambassador, about these new procedures.

FRAKER: They're taking, from their perspective, great steps to try and ensure that civilian casualties aren't that high. But it's almost impossible to control in this kind of a war. I mean, we saw this in Iraq and Afghanistan. I mean, the civilian casualties there were enormous despite our technological superiority in terms of weapons and all the rest of it. So you'll be seeing the same thing in Yemen.

AMOS: Now, Audie, some of these weapons might not be delivered for more than a year, but a few could come right away.

CORNISH: Big picture on this war in Yemen - why would the U.S. back the Saudis on this? How does this fit into the U.S.-Saudi relationship?

AMOS: Well, this was the first test of the relationship after the U.S. completed a nuclear deal with Iran. The U.S. promised to help Gulf states counter Iranian power in the region. In Yemen, Iran supports the Houthi rebels who seized the capital and ousted the government, and the Saudis and the U.S. see it as part of a struggle with Iran throughout the region.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, where do things stand in that relationship, I guess, looking ahead for this war in Yemen?

AMOS: Well, the sale of these weapons is a signal of U.S. support, but this war has devastated Yemen. It's the poorest country in the Gulf. And in this chaos, the militants of al-Qaida and ISIS are gaining ground. There's a cease-fire proposed for December. Yemeni government officials and rebels returned to the negotiating table for a second time, but no one I've talked to here, from Western the Saudi sources, believe that the fighting is over yet.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Deborah Amos in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Deborah, thanks.

AMOS: Thank you.

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