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Pentagon affirms ‘robust’ Saudi relations despite revelations in Khashoggi report

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby holds a news briefing at the Pentagon, on March 1, 2021. (Via the US Defense Department)

The US Defense Department says it continues to have "robust" relations with the Saudi military, despite the revelation made in a declassified US intelligence report that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.

"Right now, I know of no changes to the military-to-military relationship," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters on Monday, referring to the ties between the US and Saudi militaries.

"Broadly speaking, certainly the relationship from a bilateral perspective is going to be different under this administration than it was under the last," Kirby said, adding, "Militarily speaking, we have obligations there in Saudi Arabia. And we're going to continue to meet those obligations."

A declassified US intelligence report last week implicated Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Washington Post columnist Khashoggi. Questions were raised about the legality of continued American military cooperation with Saudi Arabia with regard to restrictions under the US's own Leahy Law, which prohibits military interaction with human rights abusers.

Kirby said, however, that cooperation with Saudi Arabia remained — and should remain — "robust."

"I won't get ahead of decisions that have or haven't been made inside the mil-to-mil relationship we have with Saudi Arabia. It remains robust as it should remain robust," the Pentagon spokesman said. 

He said the repercussions of the revelation about Mohammed bin Salman "remain more of an issue for the White House and the State Department to speak to, except to say we do- when we have military relationships around the world, we certainly do make sure they comport with the law."

The Biden administration declassified the intelligence report on Friday, assessing that "Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi."

Khashoggi, a former advocate of the Saudi royal court who later became a critic, was killed and his body was dismembered by a hit squad inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. He had entered the premises to collect documents for his planned marriage with his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz.

The Washington Post had already reported in November that same year that the CIA had concluded the Saudi crown prince had personally ordered the murder.

The Biden administration imposed sanctions on several Saudi individuals involved in the murder but refused to punish the crown prince, who Washington itself said had ordered the murder.

That refusal has sparked wide criticism.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price on Monday attempted to push back against criticism of the refusal to act against Mohammed by saying Washington would be watching Riyadh's "future conduct."

During a debate in November 2019, Biden had said the US would treat Saudi Arabia like "the pariah that they are."

Back then, Biden affirmed the crown prince's widely-known complicity in the Khashoggi killing and said, "I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are."

But the US administration is expected to take no concrete action to isolate Saudi Arabia, which is a key ally of America in the Middle East.

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