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Bill to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi killing introduced in US Congress

Motion to suspend future US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia comes amid global outrage over Saudi journalist's death
Bill co-sponsored by 20 US members of Congress, most of whom are Democrats (AFP)

Almost two dozen United States members of Congress introduced a bill that would suspend future US arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The bill, introduced in the US House of Representatives on Wednesday, also includes a prohibition on security assistance, intelligence, training and equipment, but does not extend to activities related to safeguarding US diplomatic posts or personnel.

It was co-sponsored by 17 Democrats and three Republicans, but it remains unclear whether the bill has enough support to successfully pass a vote in the House.

"With the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it’s time for the United States to halt all weapons sales and military aid to Saudi Arabia,” said Representative James McGovern, who originally sponsored the bill.

The bill - which would need to be passed in both the House and Senate - also states that US President Donald Trump can request exceptions to the ban on weapons sales to Riyadh, but only if he submits a report on the US investigation into anyone involved in Khashoggi's murder.

Khashoggi, a Saudi insider-turned-critic and prominent Washington Post columnist, was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.

His murder has caused global outrage and raised questions about the possible role of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia who controls the kingdom's security services.

When introducing the bill, McGovern said “the use of a diplomatic post as a torture chamber is an affront not only to international norms but to basic human decency”.

Defence industry group circulates talking points

The Trump administration and the US defence industry are scrambling to save the few actual deals included in the president's much-touted $110bn weapons package to Saudi Arabia as concerns rise around the role Saudi leaders played in Khashoggi's death.

According to a Reuters report on Wednesday, a defence industry group has circulated talking points to industry executives, instructing them to focus on the importance of arms sales to US allies and to explain that suspending such agreements could reduce the US's ability to influence foreign governments.

US companies are hoping to preserve deals with Riyadh that have near-term delivery dates - such as in 2019 and 2020 - and firm up the soft commitments made during Trump's trip to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, Reuters reported.

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After weeks of denials and changing accounts of what happened to Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia said last Friday that the journalist was killed after a fight broke out in the consulate in Istanbul. Saudi officials have also said the crown prince had no knowledge of the killing.

McGovern said “the inconsistent and implausible explanations put forth by the Saudi government make absolutely no sense and defy credibility”.

Since Khashoggi disappeared, a string of US lawmakers have called on the Trump administration to hold Saudi officials responsible. On Tuesday, the US president said he would defer any potential action to Congress.

However, legislative attempts to halt US arms to Saudi Arabia have failed in the past.

Last year, the Senate narrowly voted to support a $510m sale of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh, defeating a resolution to block the sale in a 53-to-47 vote.

In 2016, the House voted 216-to-204 against blocking the transfer of US-made cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, as well.

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