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  February 3, 2017

Trump Admin. Covers Up Saudi War Crimes in Yemen, Exaggerates Iran's Role

Ben Norton tells Paul Jay that the U.S. and Saudis are overwhelmingly responsible for the atrocities committed in Yemen
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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay.

On Thursday morning, Press Secretary Spicer said this:

Press Secretary SEAN SPICER: I think General Flynn was really clear yesterday that Iran has violated the Joint Resolution, that Iran’s additional hostile actions that it took against our Navy vessel are ones that we are very clear are not going to sit by and take, I think that we will have further updates for you on those additional actions, but clearly we wanted to make sure that Iran knows they are on notice, this is not going unresponded to.

PAUL JAY: Not only was it not an American ship, in fact it was a Saudi ship. and it wasn't the Iranians, it was the Houthis. In fact, if this even took place. But clearly it was not an Iranian attack on an American ship.

Now joining us to discuss all of this is Ben Norton. Ben is a reporter for Alternet. His work is also featured in publications like FAIR, Media Watch and The Intercept. He was previously a staff writer at Thanks very much for joining us, Ben.

BEN NORTON: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

PAUL JAY: Tell us just a little bit of context, though, in terms of where things are at in Yemen, and why this is such a trigger point.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, but we should also be clear that Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary is on record now lying multiple times. In fact, in his first press conference, he went out and claimed in an outlandish lie that the inauguration crowd on January 20th, at Trump's inauguration, was historically large. In fact, it was historically small. So even though small lies like that, which are demonstrably false, I think demonstrate that we should be very skeptical of anything they say at all.

So certainly, when they go out and make an outlandish lie claiming that Iran hit a U.S. vessel, this is absolutely preposterous and, of course, it contributes this fear, this atmosphere of fear-mongering about Iran.

And Yemen, this is an issue that I've reported on a lot, but unfortunately it's not gotten much attention in the U.S. media, let alone in U.S. politics. It was not mentioned at all in the presidential election, but since March 2015, the U.S. has staunchly backed a Saudi-led war on Yemen.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. More than 80% of the population for two years now has been in desperate need of humanitarian aid, according to humanitarian groups. Not only is there a massive bombing campaign that the U.S. has backed, and Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of 10 Arab countries all Sunni majority that are fighting rebels inside Yemen which are called the Houthis. This is not a religious conflict, but the Houthis are themselves Shi'a and that kind of shows the political alliances. There are allegations that the Houthis that the Saudi-led coalition are fighting are backed by Iran. Rhetorically, they certainly have expressed support for Iran. Politically, they're certainly aligned. The question is how much material support they've gotten from Iran, and that is debated.

I mean, most people agree who seriously look at this, and serious analysts will agree, that Iran's influence is certainly extant, but it's not large. Iran has sent weapons shipments, likely, to the Houthis through Oman, but although Oman said that they're going to stop allowing this to happen. But at the end of the day, the Houthis don't necessarily need access to foreign weapons.

Yemen is also one of the most highly militarized -- just in terms of sheer number of weapons -- countries in the world. Most households have guns. So the Houthis don't have a shortage of weapons, and at the end of the day the Houthis are themselves Yemeni, but a lot of Saudi propaganda that has been echoed by the U.S. government for two years now has claimed that the Houthis are Iranian proxies.

The Washington Post actually published a very good article based on an expert's analysis saying that, no, the Houthis actually are not Iranian proxies, and I would invite anyone interested in further information to read that.

But at the end of the day, the Trump administration is really using their ties to Iran to push for more aggressive action. And, of course, another thing to mention really quickly is that the war in Yemen has been absolutely catastrophic, and destabilizing, too.

Trump's first raid that was carried out, was carried out in Yemen and it was a complete disaster. At least one U.S. Navy SEAL died, which got a lot of attention. But what got less attention is that, according to local medics, more than 10 civilians, including women and children, were killed in the Navy SEAL raid, one of whom was an eight-year-old girl, Nawar al-Awlaki, whose father, Anwar al-Awiaki, was killed in a U.S. drone strike. He was an al Qaeda propagandist, and his 16-year-old son was also killed in a U.S. drone strike. He... Abdulrahman was a U.S. citizen.

So, I mean, when you look at Iranian policy in the region I think there's a lot of exaggeration. The U.S. is really overstating Iran's influence and the war in Yemen--

PAUL JAY: And I think there's another part of this -- the Saudis have been accused of war crimes in the Yemen war, which are at least equal to or similar to the accusations against the Assad government and the Russians, yet there's not a whisper of an accusation of war crimes against the Saudis from the U.S. government.

BEN NORTON: Absolutely. And Saudi Arabia has carried out many documented war crimes -- according to human rights groups -- with weapons that were sold by the U.S. and the U.K. Saudi Arabia has... we now have documentation that they have used cluster munitions in civilian areas in Yemen.

According to the UN report released last February, which was authored by a panel of experts on the war in Yemen, they documented Saudi-led coalition attacks on hospitals, schools, civilian homes, weddings, you can go down the list, even a humanitarian aid warehouse operated by Oxfam, even a refugee camp, and of course, the U.S. is staunchly supporting this. Not only is the U.S. providing weapons, the U.S. and the U.K. have provided military intelligence to the Saudi-led coalition. And in fact, there were reports that American and British military officials were physically in the command room with Saudi bombers when they were choosing their targets. And then, of course, the U.S. has done more than a thousand refueling sorties for Saudi planes. So several months ago, in October, when Saudi Arabia bombed a funeral and injured and killed up to 600 people, most of whom were civilians, the next day, the U.S. government helped refuel Saudi war planes.

PAUL JAY: But wasn't there a report -- I saw a report that the Obama administration was actually withholding a certain amount of arms sales to the Saudis because of the amount of civilian deaths. We're unlikely to see that under the Trump administration, but is that correct, that the Obama administration had pulled back some arms sales?

BEN NORTON: Well, there was a report that claimed that Secretary of State Kerry at the time, had made a deal with Jubeir, who is the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, and that they claimed that the U.S. was going to stop one U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which was worth about $1 billion. That may have actually been exaggerated. Reuters released a story quoting Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, in which he downplayed the significance politically of what happened, and he said that it was mostly a kind of bureaucratic development, it wasn't really a political decision.

But even if that is true, if we give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt, still the Obama administration did record high arms sales, not just with Saudi Arabia, but with the whole of the Middle East -- especially with very repressive regimes who the State Department acknowledges carry out extreme human rights violations.

So, in the case of Saudi Arabia, in his eight years in office, the Obama administration offered more than $115 billion -- $115 billion with a B -- in arms sales just to Saudi Arabia alone. And, of course, several billion of those have gone to weapons that have been used inside Yemen.

As I mentioned, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have photographic and video evidence of cluster munitions fragments that were made in the U.S. that were in the ruins of civilian areas, of homes and hospitals and such inside Yemen. So there's no question that at the end of the day the Obama administration was fuelling actively the war inside Yemen, which according to the UN, has led to more than 10,000 civilian deaths, and those are only the violent deaths. In fact, UNICEF this week said that last year alone 63,000 children -- this is just children -- 63,000 children died from preventable causes, mostly because of lack of access to medical care and malnutrition.

PAUL JAY: Right.

BEN NORTON: And we now know -- I mean, I've written on this, other people including Patrick Cockburn -- have written on how Saudi Arabia-led coalition backed by the U.S. and the U.K. has intentionally targeted civilian infrastructure, especially food production, inside Yemen, which has led to mass starvation. The UN has repeatedly, for more than year, warned that Yemen is on the brink of famine, and more than 14 million people are going hungry.

So, at the end of the day, the U.S. keeps blaming Iran for this ... but Iran's role in Yemen is very limited, and actually at the end of the day, it's a war led by Saudi Arabia with support from the U.S. and the U.K. against Yemenis. Because the Houthis are Yemenis.

PAUL JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Ben.

BEN NORTON: Thanks for having me.

PAUL JAY: All right, thanks, Ben. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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