By Phil Stewart and Warren Strobel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has decided to limit military support to Saudi Arabia's campaign in Yemen because of concerns over widespread civilian casualties and will halt a planned arms sale to the kingdom, U.S. officials told Reuters.
The United States will also revamp future training of the kingdom's air force to focus on improving Saudi targeting practices, a persistent source of concern for Washington.
The decision reflects deep frustration within President Barack Obama's government over Saudi Arabia's practices in Yemen's 20-month-old war, which has killed more than 10,000 people and sparked humanitarian crises, including chronic food shortages, in the poorest country in the Middle East.
It could also further strain ties between Washington and Riyadh in the remaining days of Obama's administration and put the question of Saudi-U.S. relations squarely before the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20.
Still, the decision was not the cut-off in support that Saudi Arabia's biggest critics had hoped for and much of the U.S. military relationship will remain intact.
For example, the United States will keep refueling Saudi-led coalition aircraft involved in the campaign, and it is not cutting off all arms sales to the kingdom. And, in a nod to Saudi Arabia's security concerns, Washington will share more intelligence on the Saudi border with Yemen.
The kingdom has been subject to cross-border attacks by the Iran-allied Houthi movement. A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen's civil war in March 2015 and has launched thousands of air strikes against the Houthis.
Rights groups say Saudi-led coalition attacks on clinics, schools, markets and factories may amount to war crimes. Saudi Arabia has either denied the attacks or cited the presence of fighters in the targeted areas and has said it has tried to reduce civilian casualties.
"I think it’s a signal but too weak of a signal," said William Hartung of the U.S.-based Center for International Policy, responding to the U.S. decision. "As long as they’re going to refueling aircraft which is central to the bombing campaign, it’s hard to see that they’re using all the leverage they have," said Hartung, who authored a report earlier this year on U.S. arms offers to Saudi Arabia during Obama's tenure.
An Obama administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said "systemic, endemic" problems in Saudi Arabia's targeting drove the U.S. decision to halt a future weapons sale involving precision-guided munitions.
"We've decided not to move forward with some foreign military sales cases for air-dropped munitions, PGMs (precision-guided munitions)," the official said.
"That's obviously a direct reflection of the concerns that we have about Saudi strikes that have resulted in civilian casualties," the official said. A second official confirmed the decision to suspend the sale of certain weaponry.
The officials declined to offer details. But a specific case put on hold appeared to involve the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of guidance systems manufactured by Raytheon Co that convert dumb bombs into precision-guided munitions that can more accurately hit their targets.
A Raytheon spokesman referred questions to the Pentagon and State Department. Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told a news briefing he was unaware of the Reuters report.
There was no immediate comment from Saudi officials.
REFUELING TO CONTINUE
The White House launched a review of U.S. assistance for the Saudi-led coalition after planes struck mourners at a funeral in the capital, Sanaa, in October, killing 140 people, according to one U.N. estimate.
The United Nations human rights office said in August that the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for roughly 60 percent of the 3,800 civilians killed since March 2015.
Human rights groups, which have criticized the United States for supporting the Saudi war effort by selling the kingdom arms and refueling coalition jets, said the move by Washington was not enough. "This move falls far short of what is needed to end civilian bloodshed and alleviate suffering in Yemen," said Amnesty International's Samah Hadid in Beirut.
The rights groups pointed to the continued refueling of coalition planes, which the Obama administration official said for now was "not going to be touched."
Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California and a leading advocate in Congress for a suspension of U.S. cooperation with the Saudi-led coalition, said he was pleased the Obama administration had moved to cut off some arms sales, but he also felt the administration had not gone far enough.
“It is completely bizarre that they are continuing to refuel Saudi jets that drop bombs on civilians in Yemen,” Lieu said.
SMART VERSUS DUMB BOMBS
The decision to suspend the arms sale to the Saudis marks a reversal for the administration. Officials have long argued that supplying so-called "smart weapons" helped in reducing civilian casualties.
But that argument ultimately failed to convince the Obama administration during its review, which the first official said was still ongoing.
"It's not a matter of how smart or dumb the bombs are, it's that they're not picking the right targets. The case in point ... is the one on the funeral," the official said.
The airstrikes on the funeral took place after the Saudi-led coalition received incorrect information from Yemeni military figures that armed Houthi leaders were in the area, an investigative body set up by the coalition said in October.
Earlier this year, the U.S. military reduced the number of U.S. military personnel coordinating with the Saudi-led coalition's air campaign, slashing it to six people from a peak of 45 personnel.
"Their responsibilities are being adjusted and limited so that they are less enmeshed in some of the offensive operations in Yemen," the official said.
Reuters reported earlier on concerns by some U.S. officials that the United States could be implicated in possible Saudi violations of the laws of war.
In May, Washington suspended sales to Riyadh of cluster munitions, which release dozens of bomblets and are considered particularly dangerous to civilians.
Last week, the State Department announced plans to sell Saudi Arabia CH-47F Chinook cargo helicopters and related equipment, training and support worth $3.51 billion. U.S. officials said the weaponry would help Saudi defend its border, not conduct offensive operations in Yemen.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Ross Colvin)