(Recasts with Mattis comment on Yemen, changes dateline)
By Idrees Ali
RIYADH, April 18 A political solution through
U.N.-brokered negotiations is needed to resolve the conflict in
Yemen, U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday as he
made his first trip in the role to Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, officials have said the United States is
considering deepening its role in the Yemen conflict by more
directly aiding its Gulf allies, who are fighting
Iranian-supported Houthi rebels.
At least 10,000 people have been killed and more than 3
million displaced in the war, now in its third year. Millions of
people are also struggling to feed themselves.
The Houthis control the capital Sanaa and large swathes of
territory. The United States backs the Saudi-led coalition which
is trying to restore the Aden-based government of Abd Rabbu
Mansour Hadi to power, including through a devastating aeriel
"It has gone on for a long time, we see Iranian supplied
missiles being fired by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia and this
is something, with the number of innocent people dying inside
Yemen, it has simply got to be brought to an end," Mattis told
reporters on his way to Riyadh.
Seven ceasefires brokered between government and rebel
forces by the United Nations have failed while U.N.-backed peace
talks have repeatedly broken down.
"We will work with our allies, with our partners to try to
get it to the U.N.-brokered negotiating table," Mattis said.
He gave no details on what additional support, if any, the
United States would provide to the Saudi-led coalition. But he
said he was looking to deepen and broaden the relationship
between the two countries on the trip.
Mattis is expected to meet senior Saudi officials including
King Salman and Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister
Mohammed bin Salman.
Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at the Center
for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said
Saudi Arabia was concerned strategically about Iran, its main
rival in a regional power struggle.
"The near-term Saudi concern is how they send a message to
the Iranians in Yemen, and they would like full-throated
American support," Alterman said.
The review of possible U.S. assistance, which already
includes intelligence support, would come amid evidence that
Iran is sending advanced weapons and military advisers to the
Congressional sources say the Trump administration is on the
verge of notifying Congress of the proposed sale of
precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia.
Increased military support for the Saudi-led coalition could
fuel controvesy over the air campaign, which has killed a number
of civilians and destroyed infrastructure, including hospitals.
The United States' involvement in Yemen has also focused on
battling al-Qaeda, whose affiliate there has taken advantage of
the chaos caused by the war.
CLARITY ON SYRIA
Mattis will also be visiting Egypt, Qatar and Israel on a
trip which may give clarity on the Trump administration's
tactics in the fight against Islamic State militants and its
willingness to use more military power than former President
Barack Obama did.
One of the main questions from allies about Syria is whether
Washington has formulated a strategy to prevent areas seized
from militants from collapsing into ethnic and sectarian feuds
or succumbing to a new generation of extremism, as parts of Iraq
and Afghanistan have done since the United States invaded them.
U.S.-backed forces are fighting to retake the Islamic State
strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and questions
remain about what will happen after that and what role other
allies such as Saudi Arabia, can play.
Administration officials said the U.S. strategy in Syria --
to defeat Islamic State while still calling for the removal of
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- is unchanged, a message
Mattis is expected to reinforce.
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)