Defense Secretary Jim Mattis cited efforts to bring peace to Yemen as a reason to maintain close military ties with Saudi Arabia, despite the murder of Washington Post contributor and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi.
"We're still trying to sort out the effects of the Khashoggi murder" on U.S.-Saudi relations, Mattis said, but he added that the U.S. does not often have the opportunity to work with "unblemished partners."
"If you're going to end the war [in Yemen], you're going to have to deal with the Saudis," Mattis said Wednesday in an informal session with Pentagon reporters.
Mattis said he was working closely with United Nations Special Envoy Martin Griffiths to arrange for peace talks in Sweden early next month between the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the ousted Yemeni government backed by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates.
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Mattis told reporters last month that he had high hopes the talks could begin in November, but that plan fell through.
The plan now was to have the talks in early December, Mattis said, adding that "the Saudis and the Emiratis are fully on board" with the proposal. Mattis said he had a specific date for the start of the talks but chose not to disclose it
In his remarks, Mattis appeared to echo President Donald Trump's statement Tuesday, in which he said the United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia was too important to U.S. interests to be derailed by the murder of Khashoggi, who disappeared last month while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Trump cited Saudi oil sales and pledges to buy billions in arms from the U.S. that would provide thousands of jobs to U.S. workers.
"We're unapologetic about America's view of human rights," Mattis said, "but on the other hand, if we're going to stop the war in Yemen, we're going to have to deal with [the Saudis]."
The three-year old conflict, in which the Houthis have launched missiles at Riyadh, and the
Saudis have been charged with indiscriminately bombing civilian targets, has spawned what the United Nations has described as the worst current humanitarian crisis in the world.
The U.S. has been providing the Saudis with intelligence and, until recently, aerial refueling for their warplanes. However, there have been recent signs that both sides could be ready for an agreement, Mattis said.
The Saudis and the Emiratis have agreed to put up $500 million to feed 10 million Yemenis for 30 days if peace talks can be arranged and prove fruitful, Mattis said. He also said that Saudi and Emirati forces had ceased their offensive on the Yemeni port of Hodeida.
"For 72 hours, the front lines have not changed," Mattis said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com.