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U.S. Senate Narrowly Defeats Bid To Block Some Saudi Arms Sales

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (C-R) is greeted by Saudi Armed Forces Chief of Joint Staff General Abdul Rahman Al Banyan (C-L) upon his arrival at the Riyadh Air Base, April 18, 2017

The U.S. Senate has narrowly defeated a move to block President Donald Trump's planned sale of $500 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia out of concern they could be used to kill civilians in Yemen.

The Senate's 53-47 vote on June 13 cleared the way for the United States to deliver the weapons, which are part of Trump's proposed $110 billion arms package for Riyadh.

The Trump deal reversed a decision by former President Barack Obama to withhold sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia's armed forces after a Saudi air strike on a funeral in Yemen last year killed more than 140 people.

While Trump has touted the arms sales as a boon for jobs in the U.S. defense industry and the fight against Iran-backed militias and terrorists in the Middle East, opponents of the sales are concerned about Saudi human rights abuses and mass killings of civilians in Yemen's civil war.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other senators who supported the sales said the United States can't deny its Middle East allies the weapons they need to combat Islamic State extremists and rein in Iran's aggression in the region.

Senator Lindsey Graham said rejecting the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia would have been a victory for Iran.

"If you don't think containing Iran and keeping them from toppling Yemen, Iraq, Syria, [and] Lebanon is in our national interest, you're making a huge mistake," he said.

But Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who led opposition to the arms sales along with Republican Senator Rand Paul, said the close vote showed that "Congress is finally taking notice that Saudi Arabia is using U.S. munitions to deliberately hit civilian targets inside Yemen."

Paul, who challenged Trump for the GOP presidential nomination last year, said Saudi Arabia was the "No. 1 exporter of jihadist philosophy" in the world.

"I am embarrassed that people would bring up trying to feather the nests of corporations in order to sell these weapons," Paul said. "Saudi Arabia is not a reliable ally."

The war in Yemen is pitting the country's internationally recognized government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states, against Iranian-backed Shi'ite rebels known as Huthis.

The Saudi-led coalition, which is supported by the United States, has been carrying out air strikes in Yemen since March 2015, and thousands of civilians have been killed in the fighting, most of them due to the air strikes, according to the United Nations.

Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Senate should have refused to give the most sophisticated and deadly weapons to the Saudis.

"We need to send a message to both the Trump administration and the Saudis to work much harder to avoid civilian casualties, expedite humanitarian relief, and push for a peaceful end to the war through a negotiated political settlement," Cardin said.

With reporting by AP and Reuters