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Journalist Iona Craig: The U.S. Could Stop Refueling Saudis & End Devastating War in Yemen Tomorrow

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At least one child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen. That’s the conclusion of a report just published by the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF. The report also found that there has been a 200 percent increase since 2014 in children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, with almost half a million affected. Nearly 2.2 million children are in need of urgent care. This comes as the country’s health system is on the verge of collapse, in part due to the ongoing U.S.-backed Saudi bombing of Yemen. Since the bombing began in March 2015, more than 10,000 people have died and 3 million have been displaced in the conflict. The U.S. has been a major backer of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign. In 2015 alone, the United States approved more than $20 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia. U.S.-made munitions have repeatedly been found at the scene of Saudi-led bombings where civilians have been killed. For more, we speak with award-winning journalist Iona Craig. She was based in Sana’a from 2010 to 2015 as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: At least one child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen. That’s the conclusion of a report just published by the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF. The report also found that there has been a 200 percent increase since 2014 in children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, with almost half a million affected. Nearly 2.2 million children are in need of urgent care.

This comes as the country’s health system is on the verge of collapse, in part due to the ongoing U.S.-backed Saudi bombing of Yemen. Since the bombing began in March 2015, more than 10,000 people have died and 3 million have been displaced in the conflict. Saudi Arabia launched its offensive to target Houthi rebels loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saudi Arabia and the United States accuse Iran of supplying weapons to the Houthis. The U.S. has been a major backer of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign. In 2015 alone, the United States approved more than $20 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia. U.S.-made munitions have repeatedly been found at the scene of Saudi-led bombings where civilians have been killed. Facing mounting pressure from human rights groups, the Obama administration announced earlier this week that the U.S. would halt the sale of some weapons to Saudi Arabia. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest spoke about Yemen on Tuesday.

PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: We have long expressed some pretty significant concerns about the high rate of civilian casualties in Yemen. And many of those casualties have been as a result of operations carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in the region—not all of them. There have also been civilian casualties as a result of operations carried out by their adversaries, as well. But, of course, the United States is playing a role in supporting the Saudi-led coalition. And in light of the high rate of civilian casualties, there was—the president ordered a review of the kind of assistance that the United States provides to the Saudis as they undertake this effort. That review is ongoing, but there are a couple of steps that the United States is prepared to take to—to change some of the assistance that we provide. That includes refocusing our efforts to support the Saudis when it comes to enhancing their border security and their territorial integrity.

AMY GOODMAN: White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, speaking Tuesday. While Washington is halting the sale of some weapons to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. will continue to refuel coalition aircraft and provide intelligence to Saudi Arabia. Human rights groups are calling for a more comprehensive ban on U.S. assistance.

To talk more about the situation, we’re joined by Iona Craig, a journalist who was based in Sana’a from 2010 to 2015 as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London. She was awarded the 2016 Orwell Prize for her reporting there. She also received the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you in studio. This UNICEF report, 10—one Yemeni child dies every 10 minutes?

IONA CRAIG: Yeah, I mean, this is a combination of the humanitarian situation in Yemen of malnutrition as well as access to medical care. So, this is from preventable diseases. And in the process of the conflict, you’ve got the issue over the blockade of the Saudis preventing food coming into the country, when Yemen relies on imports for 90 percent of its food. And then, to add to that, it’s the situation of the medical facilities in Yemen. Fifty-eight hospitals—more than 58 hospitals now have been bombed by the coalition airstrikes, and people just do not have access to medical care in a way that they did before the war. And also, you know, just the expense and the access of getting to places and getting people to hospitals and facilities has been, you know, severely affected by the conflict. So, this is preventable diseases and malnutrition combined. It’s creating a devastating situation for the children in Yemen right now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you say a little bit more about the blockade? Who has imposed the blockade? And what all does it include in addition to preventing food from arriving in Yemen?

IONA CRAIG: Well, the reason the Saudis put their blockade in place in the first place was, they said, to prevent weapons, particularly from, they said, Iran going in to the Houthis, who they’re currently fighting, and the forces of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Now, that blockade has been eased somewhat, and now the U.N. is responsible for boats getting into particularly the northern areas, the most populated areas, of Yemen. But the problem was, on top of that, even once those boats were being allowed in, the coalition then bombed the port of Hodeidah, which they hit directly the cranes that are needed to offload food into the port. So it now takes a huge amount of time to get the food offloaded, and it means only specific boats with their own cranes on board can get that food off.

Add to that a decision made by the Yemeni government in exile, who are currently in Riyadh, and President Hadi. They made a decision to move the Central Bank of Yemen, that had tried to remain neutral through the conflict, which had been, obviously, in the capital, Sana’a, which was under Houthi control. He took a unilateral decision in September then to move the Central Bank of Yemen without any planning whatsoever. The Central Bank is crucial to underwriting the imports of food into the country by private companies. And it means they’re not able to do that now. So you’re looking at the prospect of basically wheat supplies running out at the end of January, without any imports being able to come in. So, in the next few weeks and, certainly, months, it doesn’t look like the Central Bank is going to be able to get this system up and running until probably the spring—March, April time, at best. It basically freezes the ability of private companies then to be importing food into Yemen. So the situation is only going to get worse now in the next three months.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. military weapons are still coming in, though, is that right? First of all, why did it take the U.S. to—this long to stop supplying Saudi Arabia? But explain what it’s supplying and what it’s not and how it’s getting it through other countries.

IONA CRAIG: Well, of course, that is a crucial question: Why did it take this long? You know, there was data out in the middle of last year saying that 60 percent of the casualties were being caused by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes. I think it all came to a head, really, at the beginning of October, when there was a very high-profile strike in the middle of Sana’a that hit a funeral and killed over 140 civilians in a double-tap strike. So that was first responders being killed, as well, in a second strike after the initial attack.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened there?

IONA CRAIG: This was a funeral in the middle of Sana’a. There were a lot of Houthi dignitaries there and senior figures within the Houthis and Saleh officials. And they had gathered in—more than a thousand people in one building. But amongst those Houthi officials, of course, were hundreds of civilians. And that building was bombed twice. And I think that’s what brought everything to a head, and concerns, I think, probably, from the U.S. government then that they were going to be complicit in war crimes. And there was, you know, mounting evidence of war crimes, and certainly I’d seen it myself on the ground, of civilian targets being repeatedly hit.

And so, the U.S. is now taking this decision to stop, or suspend, anyway, the sale of precision guided weapons. This doesn’t mean that they will stop selling them to other members of the coalition, as well, because this is a multinational coalition. You have the Emirates involved, the UAE, as well. And it also doesn’t mean that they’re not going to stop selling them other equipment, such as attack helicopters, and supporting them militarily, as they’ve already said, for border control. But, you know, there’s no—there’s no way that they can prevent those weapons that are still being sold from being used inside Yemen, anyway. And, as I say, other members of the coalition are still using bombs that are being sold. And, of course, the British have—are not going to stop what they’re doing, which has been similar to the U.S. And they’ve authorized the sale of over 3 billion pounds’ worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia over the course of the war, as well, and there’s no indication that they’re going to stop doing that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about the U.S. still providing refueling to coalition aircraft? How important is that? And do you see any sign that they might stop providing refueling?

IONA CRAIG: No. I mean, even when they made this announcement about suspending the precision guided weapons, they said that they’re not going to be suspending the refueling. And that really is crucial. If they stop the refueling, that would stop the bombing campaign literally tomorrow, because logistically the coalition would not be able to send their fighter jets in to carry out sorties without that help. And I think that’s really the crucial part of it and why people are pushing for more, because if the U.S. government did want to stop the bombing campaign, they could do it, straightaway. So this is a kind of halfhearted sort of effort, really, by saying, “We’re going to stop the precision guided weapons,” and, you know, backs them away from being complicit maybe in war crimes so much, but they’re still heavily involved in actually the whole campaign carrying on.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to comments by the British defense secretary, Michael Fallon. Speaking Sunday, he emphasized Britain’s support for Saudi Arabia.

DEFENSE SECRETARY MICHAEL FALLON: The government’s view is absolutely clear, that what Saudi Arabia is entitled to do is to defend itself from these attacks across its own border. It’s had—its cities in the south of Saudi Arabia have been shelled by the Houthis. It’s perfectly entitled to defend itself. And it’s also leading the coalition to restore the legitimate government of Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why is the U.K. still supporting Saudi Arabia? And how does the situation in Yemen compare to what’s happening in Syria?

IONA CRAIG: Well, on that first question, really, I mean, the British are actually in far deeper waters as far as the war crimes is concerned, because they’re signatories to the Arms Trade Treaty. And in the Arms Trade Treaty, it says if there is any risk that weapons could be used in violations of international humanitarian law—and that’s a pretty low bar, “could be used”—then they should be suspended. And anybody that’s spent more than a couple of days on the ground in Yemen can see that it’s not “could be,” it’s highly likely. And even, you know, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have found evidence of British bomb remnants being used on civilian targets in Yemen. So, absolutely they should be suspending. But there have been various arguments put forward by the British government, including that “If we don’t do it, somebody else will,” which doesn’t really help them out when you’re trying to defend yourself in violations of war crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: You mean, “If we don’t do it, someone else will make the money”?

IONA CRAIG: Yes, exactly. So this is going to come to a situation now in the High Court in the U.K. in January, where this issue is being challenged by activists who are trying to suspend those sales.

But with the comparison with Syria, the humanitarian situation in Yemen is worse. It’s far worse, because it’s the poorest country in the Middle East, and there was already an issue over malnutrition in Yemen before the war. And there was just no capacity to cope with any kind of restriction in food imports, as I’ve already mentioned. And there is no—there is no sort of middle class, where people have disposable income in order to be able to pay to get themselves out of the country, which, in the case of Yemen now, it’s pretty much become an island. Even fishermen have been bombed in their boats off the coasts, which kind of rules out the option of going across the sea to get out of the country. And then the border is with Saudi Arabia, obviously, and that’s sort of running the gauntlet if people are wanting to escape. So, the humanitarian situation in Yemen is very much cut off from the rest of the world in that respect. And there was no capacity within the country of people being able to have a coping mechanism to deal with that. And even the impact of the Arab Spring, we saw, after the revolution in Yemen in 2011, the situation got bad. And that was just a year of political unrest. And now you’re talking about two years of war, a restriction on imports. And that’s why you’ve got, you know, 18.8 million people now in need of some form of humanitarian aid, which is far worse than the figures that are coming out of Syria.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can you say a little bit about—you’ve suggested that there’s no resolution to the conflict in Yemen without also addressing other conflicts in the Middle East, in Iraq and in Syria, and also whether, as some claim, Yemen has now basically become a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

IONA CRAIG: Yes, I think, you know, both of those questions run into each other, really. I mean, the conflict in Yemen started as a war between two presidents, really: the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who then used the Houthis to take over the capital, Sana’a, and—between him and his then—his vice president, who used to be his vice president and who became the new president in 2012, President Hadi. Then, of course, once the Saudis got involved, because they see the Houthis as an ally to Iran and a proxy for Iran, really, it then fed into the regional power struggle, really, between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And so, without those parties being involved—obviously, Saudi Arabia, as well—in the resolution, there is no way of getting to the intricate details of what needs to be broken down into a political solution for Yemen, without removing those other parties, those regional parties, that are involved in the conflict, as well. So, that’s why if the Saudis are no longer involved in the military campaign in Yemen, it does actually make a resolution to the conflict in Yemen more possible, and perhaps easier, because then you’re dealing with local political dynamics rather than having to deal with regional ones.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What about Iran, though?

IONA CRAIG: Well, no, the claims of a Iranian involvement in Yemen, for many years, have been really hard to find evidence of on the ground in Yemen. And I think it’s very much overblown. There’s a huge amount of paranoia in Riyadh about this. Certainly, the Houthis are politically aligned to Iran, but there isn’t the kind of involvement that you see, you know, in Syria in places. There are not Iranian forces on the ground in Yemen. There has been more recent evidence again, in the last few weeks, of a trail of the weapons perhaps coming from Iran and serial numbers popping up on the ground then in the ground war. But, actually, you know, there are probably as many American weapons involved with—in the Houthis’ hands, because much of the military remained loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, and, of course, the Americans have been providing military support to Ali Abdullah Saleh for many years, before the war even started.

AMY GOODMAN: As we begin to wrap up, I want to read a part of a 2015 Washington Post article in part about General James Mattis. That’s the man tapped by Donald Trump to be the next secretary of defense. The Washington Post reports, quote, “Mattis lobbied for more interdictions of ships and planes carrying Iranian arms to battlefields such as Yemen and Syria … And Mattis pressed for more covert actions to capture or kill Iranian operatives.” Talk about what Yemen will look like with—in a Trump administration and who, as Trump himself calls him, “Mad Dog” Mattis is, the significance of what he’s saying.

IONA CRAIG: I think there are a lot of unknowns at the moment, particularly because what has been said by Trump in the run-up to elections was sometimes contradictory. And also this whole issue, obviously, of being perhaps more sympathetic to Russia, whilst being more hawkish to Iran, when ultimately they’re on the same side in the Middle East, it really leaves a lot more questions than it answers. I mean, certainly, the impression I’ve been getting from Riyadh and out of Saudi Arabia over the last few weeks is that, actually, they think the Trump administration might be more favorable to them. And, of course, this means now we’re kind of in a dead time now, between now and inauguration at the end of January, where everybody kind of waits to see what happens. And that means that, you know, political negotiations that were—had already slowed down, despite, you know, efforts by John Kerry, are now completely frozen, because everybody’s waiting to see.

AMY GOODMAN: So that means one child every 10 minutes continues to die in Yemen.

IONA CRAIG: And it will be more. I think it will be more between now and the spring. The situation is not going to improve for them anytime—anytime soon.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Iona Craig, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Iona has been based in Sana’a from 2010 to 2015 as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll go to Washington, D.C. As a Muslim registry is being talked about in a Trump administration, with the model being the Japanese-American internment camps, we’ll go to a man who grew up in one of those camps. He’s currently a congressman. Stay with us.

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