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House Democrats urge Biden to pressure Saudis on 'unconscionable' Yemen blockade

The lawmakers called on Biden to use the full weight of US influence to end the sea and air blockade, which aid agencies say is exacerbating Yemen's humanitarian crisis.
US Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) is seen in a hallway of the US Capitol prior to an event at the Rayburn Room Dec. 19, 2019 in Washington, DC.

A group of House Democrats are calling on President Joe Biden to publicly pressure Saudi Arabia to end its “unconscionable” naval and air blockade of Yemen that threatens the lives of 16 million Yemenis already on the brink of famine. 

Representatives Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) led more than 70 of their colleagues in a letter to Biden on Tuesday, calling on the president to use the “full weight of US influence and all tools at your disposal to end the blockade.”

"We ask you to take additional steps to publicly pressure Saudi Arabia to lift this blockade immediately, unilaterally, and comprehensively," the letter read.

"This must include guaranteeing that humanitarian and commercial imports can freely enter Yemen; entrusting security oversight to the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM); fully permitting flights in and out of Sana’a airport; and ensuring that and crossings for commercial and civilian traffic are permanently opened," the Democrats wrote. 

A Western-backed military coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened in the civil war in 2015 to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which had been expelled when the Iran-aligned Houthis overran the capital the year before. 

The Saudi-led blockade has contributed to what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Parts of Yemen are experiencing famine-like conditions, and the UN estimates at least 400,000 Yemeni children under the age of five could die of starvation this year. 

CNN investigation last month found that since the start of the year, Saudi coalition warships haven’t allowed a single oil tanker, including 14 that secured UN clearance, to dock at the Houthi-controlled Red Sea port of Hodeidah. A day after CNN’s report was published, Yemen’s Saudi-backed government allowed four fuel ships to berth, but aid agencies say far more fuel is needed to make a dent in northern Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. 

The Saudi government has since put forward a UN-backed peace proposal that includes measures to allow fuel and food imports to reach Hodeidah port. Neither the Yemeni governor nor the Houthis have agreed to the terms, with the rebels saying the truce fell short of their demand for a complete end to the blockade.  

The rebel movement has meanwhile ramped up its cross-border attacks targeting Saudi Arabia and has escalated a campaign to take the oil-rich region of Marib. 

“We strongly support a comprehensive political settlement that addresses all aspects of the conflict, including a nationwide ceasefire,” the lawmakers said. 

"At the same time, a U.S. demand to end the blockade must occur independently of negotiations, particularly given that recent Saudi bombings of Sanaa and the Houthis’ offensive on Marib have cast the fate of those talks into doubt," the letter reads. 

A group of more than 70 national organizations as well as celebrities including Amy Schumer, Orlando Bloom and Mark Ruffalo called for an end to the blockade in a similar letter sent to Biden on Tuesday.  

Biden has made ending the grueling civil war a foreign policy priority and has appointed a special envoy, Timothy Lenderking, to oversee diplomatic efforts. Since taking office, Biden has ended offensive support for the Saudi-led coalition and launched a review of US weapons sales to Riyadh. His administration also reversed President Donald Trump’s foreign terrorist designation of the Houthis, a move humanitarian groups had warned could worsen the humanitarian crisis.