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U.S. Calls For Yemen Cease-Fire


We have seen the photos - emaciated children on the brink of starvation. We have heard the voices of families trying to survive in the midst of the bombings. The civil war in Yemen became a regional war when Saudi Arabia, with help from the U.S. and the U.K., intervened to attack Houthi rebels who had taken over the government there. Now, after more than three years and 17,000 civilians killed or wounded, the U.S. is calling for a cease-fire. Yesterday, the U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, released a statement saying, quote, "it is time to end the conflict." Journalist Iona Craig has been covering Yemen since 2010. She joins us now on the line from the U.K. Thanks so much for being with us.

IONA CRAIG: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, it's been more than three years that the U.S. has been supporting the Saudi air campaign. Why is the Trump administration calling for a cease-fire now?

CRAIG: Well, I think it's for two reasons, really. Primarily, things have come to a head over the killing of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul, which has really brought international focus on the Saudi's activities in Yemen and the war. And I think secondly, the pictures that you just mentioned - this issue of a famine is now being seen more clearly. There's been warnings from the U.N. that this is likely to be the worst famine the world has ever seen for a hundred years if the conflict continues and that 14 million people are facing imminent starvation. And I think...

MARTIN: Let me just - I'm sorry to interrupt you, Iona. Let me just ask, though, I mean, the warnings from the U.N., although not in these same words, have been coming for years about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. So if we are to believe that this is primarily motivated by the Khashoggi death, can you make that connection? I mean, why is the death of one journalist precipitating perhaps a cease-fire in a war that's left thousands of civilians dead, millions on the brink of starvation?

CRAIG: Because I think it's put much more focus on the Saudis in general and Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince who is also the minister of defense who initiated the Saudi intervention in Yemen that has led to this humanitarian catastrophe now. And so that pressure is mounting, and not only over what actually happened to Jamal Khashoggi, but also now on what the Saudis are doing in Yemen. It was always the line before, both from the U.S. and the U.K. and other governments was, we believe the Saudis are doing their best to avoid civilian casualties. We are relying on both their investigations into potential violations of international humanitarian law, but also their narrative on the war.

And I think what happened with Jamal Khashoggi and not only the way that he died but the narrative that was coming out of Saudi and the rapidly changing story of what happened to him now undermines all of their narrative on what they've been doing in Yemen and the issue of potential international humanitarian law violations and just the general situation on the ground, which the U.S. and the U.K. as well have always taken Saudi's word, really, for their activity.

MARTIN: And now you're suggesting that there may be a wholesale re-evaluation of how much trust they put in the Saudi narrative. Do you think this is going to happen? I mean, that's really the bottom line here, right? Do you think this war is going to end?

CRAIG: I'm not terribly optimistic - certainly, this 30-day window for a cease-fire and peace talks - for many reasons. Firstly, because it doesn't just involve the Saudis. It involves the Houthis being engaged. And there was an attempt to do this last month in Geneva, where there was supposed to be a meeting for a political resolution. And the Houthis didn't even make it to Geneva because they didn't believe that they would have safety and security that would mean that they could get back to Yemen because the coalition would prevent them from doing so. So the prospect of trying to solve this conflict in 30 days, I think, is a slightly fanciful. But, of course, if it does mean a cessation of hostilities, that's got to be good for Yemenis.

MARTIN: Iona Craig - she's been covering the war in Yemen for many years. She's also a future of war fellow at New America. Thanks so much for sharing your reporting and insight on this, Iona. We appreciate it.

CRAIG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.