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Trump stands by Saudi ally despite Khashoggi murder

Leah Millis, REUTERS | US President Donald Trump at the White House on November 20, 2018.

President Donald Trump said the United States would not punish its Saudi ally for the gruesome murder of US-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi, despite conceding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have known of the killing.

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Defying pressure from US lawmakers to impose tougher sanctions on Saudi Arabia, Trump said he would not cancel military contracts with the kingdom. Such a "foolish" move would only benefit Russia and China, said the US president, whom critics accuse of exaggerating the importance of those weapons sales to the American economy.

Trump said US intelligence agencies were still studying the evidence around Khashoggi's murder and who planned it.

“It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said in a statement.

“We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he said. “The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia.”

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The gruesome murder of Khashoggi, who vanished after being lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, has hugely embarrassed Washington.

The killing torpedoed a powerful PR campaign led by the crown prince to show that the conservative Islamic state has embarked on a new reformist path.

It also threw into question the White House strategy to make MBS, as the royal prince Mohammed Bin Salman is widely known, its main partner in the tinderbox region.

After offering numerous contradictory explanations for Khashoggi's disappearance, Riyadh said last week he had been killed and his body dismembered when "negotiations" to convince him to return to Saudi Arabia failed. It said allegations the prince had ordered the killing were false.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in Washington on Tuesday that Turkey was not entirely satisfied with the level of cooperation it was receiving from Riyadh on Khashoggi's murder and may seek a formal United Nations inquiry.

Republican and Democratic leaders of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee said they had asked Trump for a second human rights probe over Khashoggi's killing.

Similarly, Representative Francis Rooney, a Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Washington should apply the so-called Magnitsky Act to those responsible for Khashoggi's death. The law freezes US assets of human rights violators and prohibits Americans from doing business with them.

Saudi prince 'involved' in murder

Trump has for weeks resisted accepting mounting evidence of Saudi government involvement in the Khashoggi killing – and accusations that MBS ordered the hit.

However, with The New York Times reporting that the CIA has definitively concluded that Prince Mohammed was involved, the focus turned to whether Trump would punish his Saudi partner or find a way to let it slide.

In his statement, released by the White House press office, Trump took the latter option, saying that the US-Saudi relationship was more important than the possible involvement in the crime of Prince Mohammed.

He noted that Saudi King Salman and the crown prince “vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr Khashoggi”.

Also, Saudi Arabia, he said, provides crucial help in the US struggle to contain Iranian ambitions, as well as having committed to $450 billion in US weapons contracts and other investments. In addition, the Saudis have helped in keeping oil prices low, Trump said.

“The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region,” he said.

Trump acknowledged a strong push in Congress for the United States to sanction MBS and take other action against the Saudi leadership.

“I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America,” he said.

However, this statement was described as “shameful” by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a tweet on Tuesday.

“Mr. Trump bizarrely devotes the FIRST paragraph of his shameful statement on Saudi atrocities to accuse IRAN of every sort of malfeasance he can think of. Perhaps we’re also responsible for the California fires, because we didn’t help rake the forests – just like the Finns do?” Zarif wrote on Twitter.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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