Journalist’s disappearance hardens U.S. Congress stance on Saudi arms deals

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has hardened resistance in the U.S. Congress to selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, already a sore point for many lawmakers concerned about the humanitarian crisis created by Yemen’s civil war.

Even before Turkish reports said Khashoggi was killed at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Democratic U.S. lawmakers had placed “holds” on at least four military equipment deals, largely because of Saudi attacks that have killed Yemeni civilians.

President Donald Trump was wary of halting arms sales over the case, saying on Thursday the kingdom would just move its money into Russia and China.

The Gulf Arab states have been battling since 2015 to restore a government driven out by the Houthis, Shi’ite Muslim fighters Yemen’s neighbors view as agents of Iran. The war has killed more than 10,000 people and created the world’s most urgent humanitarian emergency.

U.S. lawmakers, Democrats and some of Trump’s fellow Republicans, said reports that Khashoggi had been killed inside the consulate had heightened concerns about the Saudi government.

“This is something that enrages people, as it should,” Senator Bob Corker, the Republican Foreign Relations Committee chairman, told reporters.

Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote columns for the Washington Post, entered the consulate on Oct. 2 to collect documents for his planned marriage. His Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who waited outside, said he never re-appeared.

An informal U.S. review process lets the top Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees stall major foreign arms deals if they have concerns such as whether weapons would be used to kill civilians.

Corker said he recently told a defense contractor not to push for a deal with the Saudis, even before the Khashoggi case.

“I shared with him before this happened, please do not push to have any arms sales brought up right now because they will not pass. It will not happen. With this, I can assure it won’t happen for a while,” Corker said.

While details of all the blocked Saudi deals were not immediately available, one was the planned sale of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of high-tech munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Senator Robert Menendez, the top Foreign Relations panel Democrat, said Trump’s administration had not satisfied concerns he first raised in June about the sale to members of the Saudi-led coalition of the Raytheon Co (RTN.N) precision-guided munitions, or PGMs.

Some other lawmakers said they would wait to learn more about Khashoggi’s fate before backing a step like cutting off all arms sales, given the importance of the U.S. alliance with Riyadh.

“I think what we need to do is find out what actually happened first,” said John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican. “And then we can discuss the ramifications, but obviously the allegations of Saudi involvement are very serious.”

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; additional reporting by Richard Cowan; editing by Chris Sanders and Grant McCool

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