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Trump Administration Appears To Be Lessening Push For Cease-Fire In Yemen


It's been a month since top Trump administration officials called for a cease-fire in Yemen. At the time, it seemed the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi had forced the administration to rethink its support for Saudi Arabia's war against rebels in Yemen. Now the administration is treading lightly with the Saudis, calling this a delicate moment for diplomacy. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: At the end of October, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he wanted to see a cease-fire in Yemen and peace talks within 30 days.


JAMES MATTIS: This has got to end. We've got to replace combat with compromise.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed that, saying the time is now for a cessation of hostilities. But today, one of his top aides, Brian Hook, said he doesn't want to do anything to help the Iranians. They are Saudi Arabia's arch-rival in the region, and they are backing Houthi rebels in Yemen.


BRIAN HOOK: This is why it is especially important that we get the de-escalation of conflicts in places like Yemen right.

KELEMEN: Hook accuses Iran of prolonging the war in Yemen.


HOOK: Iran has been funding, arming and training the Houthis, which has allowed them to continue to fight well beyond what would have made any sense at all.

KELEMEN: The Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen began over three years ago. Saudi officials at the time seemed confident that with U.S. help, they would be able to quickly reinstall a government that had been ousted by the Houthis. But experts say as the war has dragged on and on, the Houthis have only increased their dependence on Iran. Yemen's infrastructure has been devastated, and millions of people are on the brink of famine. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres is trying to get the warring sides to hold peace talks in Sweden.


ANTONIO GUTERRES: I believe there is a chance to be able to start effective negotiations early in December. But we are not yet there.

KELEMEN: Diplomats at the U.N. Security Council have been calling for an immediate cease-fire, but the Saudis oppose that, and the U.S. is no longer pushing for a quick vote on a draft resolution. The Middle East director for the International Crisis Group, Joost Hiltermann, says the Americans are sending mixed signals.

JOOST HILTERMANN: There seems to be a sense that if you call for a cease-fire now as a condition for talking, then the talks won't take place.

KELEMEN: He says that since the initial calls for a cease-fire, there has been more fighting in and around Hudaydah, a major port city in Yemen controlled by the Houthis. The Saudis and their Arab allies are trying to regain control, and Hiltermann says that offensive has to end now.

HILTERMANN: If it resumes and leads to an all-out battle for the city and the port, then millions of people in the country will plunge into outright famine. That must be averted.

KELEMEN: And he'd like to see the U.S. being more forceful with its Arab partners about that. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.