WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Retired four-star Army General John Abizaid, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said on Wednesday that the Islamic State militant group has been “nearly vanquished on the ground,” but remains a “potent threat” to the United States and its allies.
While stressing the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, Abizaid also called for accountability for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
Despite increasing tension between Washington and Riyadh, the United States has not had an ambassador to the kingdom since Trump became U.S. president in January 2017.
“In the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia,” Abizaid said at his Senate confirmation hearing. “It is in our interests to make sure that the relationship is sound,” he said.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Riyadh government, was killed at a Saudi consulate in Turkey in October. The death of the U.S. resident fueled simmering discontent in Washington over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and heavy civilian casualties in Yemen’s civil war, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
The House of Representatives has passed a war powers resolution that would end all U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, but Abizaid said the Trump administration believes strongly that U.S. support should continue.
“Doing so bolsters the self-defense capabilities of our partners and reduces the risk of harm to civilians,” Abizaid said.
Timing of any Senate vote on the resolution is uncertain. Trump would be expected to issue a veto, but its passage was considered a strong rebuke of the government in Riyadh.
Lawmakers, including Trump’s fellow Republicans have been strongly critical of Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince. Some blame him for Khashoggi’s killing and other human rights abuses.
As Abizaid’s hearing continued, at least two Republican senators said bin Salman had gone “full gangster.”
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Nick Zieminski