The top U.S. diplomat urged Saudi Arabia on Friday to temper its actions toward Yemen, Qatar and other neighbors, gently turning up the pressure as Saudi's powerful crown prince asserts power both at home and overseas, as the White House raised new alarms about the situation in Yemen.
During a brief visit to France, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson drew a distinction between Saudi Arabia's recent domestic moves and its behavior elsewhere in the Middle East.
He declared strong American support for the kingdom's internal reforms, which include Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's corruption crackdown against powerful princes, businessmen and military officers. Opponents see it as a power grab. Internationally, Tillerson encouraged Saudi restraint.
"With respect to Saudi Arabia's engagement with Qatar, how they're handling the Yemen war that they're engaged in, the Lebanon situation, we would encourage them to be a bit more measured and a bit more thoughtful in those actions to, I think, fully consider the consequences," Tillerson said.
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Tillerson's comments signaled America's increasing perception the Saudis may be overreaching on the global stage. Earlier this week, President Donald Trump directed aides to call Saudi leaders to demand an immediate end to the kingdom's blockade on war-ravaged Yemen, where the Saudis have led a military intervention against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who control much of the country.
In a statement Friday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the U.S. is "gravely concerned by the recent escalation in violence and continued dire humanitarian conditions in Yemen" and urged "all parties to immediately cease hostilities, reenergize political talks, and end the suffering of the Yemeni people."
She also called on the Saudi-led coalition to allow the free flow of humanitarian aid, fuel and other goods through all Yemeni ports and called on Houthi militias to allow the distribution of food, medicine and fuel in the areas they control.
"The United States continues to believe that the devastating conflict in Yemen, and the suffering it causes, must be brought to an end through political negotiations in accordance with relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions," she said.
Tillerson renewed the call for the blockade's "complete end." Saudi Arabia argues it hasn't blockaded Yemen entirely, but merely seeks to stop Iranian weapons from being smuggled into Yemen for use against the kingdom and its allies. The U.S. has joined Saudi Arabia in alleging that Iran supplied the Houthis with missiles that have been launched at the Saudi capital from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen.
On Friday, Yemeni officials said Saudi-led coalition airstrikes killed at least 23 civilians, including women and children, in the country's north. The Saudi-led coalition backs Yemen's internationally recognized government and has battled the Houthis since March 2015.The stalemated war has killed more than 10,000 civilians and pushed the Arab world's poorest country to the brink of famine.
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The Trump administration has sought to strengthen Sunni-led Saudi Arabia's role as a regional counterweight to Iran, the Shiite powerhouse the U.S. blames for fomenting unrest in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. But Saudi Arabia's critics worry that Trump's support is emboldening a country with its own history of helping militant groups with questionable records, such as in Syria. They question if Saudi Arabia is enhancing stability in the volatile Middle East.
In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia is widely believed to have orchestrated the shock resignation last month of Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Saudi citizen, who was in Riyadh at the time. After leaving Saudi Arabia, Hariri rescinded his resignation as world leaders committed to limiting Iranian-backed Hezbollah's control over Lebanon.
In Qatar, Saudi Arabia has led several neighbors in enforcing a blockade of the tiny, gas-rich nation. It accuses Qatar of funding terrorism and supporting opposition movements throughout the region. The United States has oscillated between supporting the Saudi and Qatari sides of the dispute. Recently, Tillerson has suggested the Saudis are preventing a resolution.
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris and Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.