US senators are sending a strong signal that they want to punish Saudi Arabia for its role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, voting to move forward with legislation that would end US involvement with a Saudi-led war in Yemen.

The World Health Organization says nearly 10,000 people - mostly civilians - have been killed in Yemen since the Saudi-led intervention began. (November 11, 2018)
The World Health Organization says nearly 10,000 people - mostly civilians - have been killed in Yemen since the Saudi-led intervention began. (November 11, 2018) (Reuters)

The US Senate took a defiant stance against President Donald Trump's White House on Wednesday, advancing a measure that would end American military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Lawmakers agreed by a vote of 63-37 to allow debate to proceed on the resolution after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis failed to sway undecided senators to continue the military support for the war coalition.

The CIA dismissed allegations about the White House, saying the Trump administration did not tell CIA Director Gina Haspel to not attend the briefing for the US Senate on Yemen.

Pompeo and Mattis visited Capitol Hill on Wednesday morning to lobby against the resolution. Emerging from the briefing, Pompeo said the vote would be "poorly timed" as diplomatic efforts to end the conflict are underway.

The vote marks a striking departure from earlier this year when the measure failed, and signals a new bipartisan desire in the Senate for Trump's administration to take a harder line on Saudi Arabia after the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was linked to the government in Riyadh, and amid a mounting humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

TRT World's Leone Lakhani has more. 

Lawmakers are exasperated with Trump's reaction to the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which has been linked to Riyadh, and by the mounting humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Yemen.

"The Saudis have gone off the rails. They've killed more civilians this year than any year prior in the Yemen war," Democratic Senator Chris Murphy told AFP.

"They obviously made a giant strategic error in abducting and murdering Jamal Khashoggi. So, a lot has changed in the last few months to get us to this point."

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he switched his vote in favor of the resolution because CIA Director Gina Haspel did not testify and could not be grilled on whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was aware of the plan to kill Khashoggi.

"The question for me is whether or not the CIA supports the conclusion, with a high degree of confidence, that the crown prince was complicit in the murder of Mr Khashoggi," Graham told reporters.

"I'm not going to be denied the ability to be briefed by the CIA."

Both Mattis and Pompeo said that, after carefully reviewing the intelligence, they could find no direct evidence linking Khashoggi's murder to the crown prince, who is also known as MBS.

"There is no smoking gun," Mattis told Pentagon reporters, stressing he still believes those responsible should be punished.

"We have not changed, (in) that accountability for the murder is our expectation of everyone involved in the murder."

Yemen talks to begin

Peace talks aimed at ending the war in Yemen have been set for early December in Sweden, between Houthi rebels and the UN-recognised government.

Mattis and Pompeo worry a move to cut US support to the Saudis ahead of the summit is poorly timed and could embolden Houthis not to negotiate.

Senator Murphy, however, said Pompeo and Mattis' testimony may have been counterproductive.

"They lost votes this morning," he said.

"They just had no good answers for why Gina Haspel wasn't there. They had no plan to end the war in Yemen."

The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of the capital of Sanaa by the Iranian-backed Houthis, which toppled the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The Saudi-led coalition has been fighting the Houthis since 2015.

Saudi-led airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and wedding parties, and the Houthis have fired long-range missiles into Saudi Arabia and targeted vessels in the Red Sea.

Tens of thousands of people are believed to have been killed in the war and UN food agency chief David Beasley said last week that as many as 12 million of the 28 million Yemenis "are just one step away from famine."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies