U.S. defense secretary: must overcome Iran's destabilization efforts to help Yemen

RIYADH (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Wednesday that Iran’s destabilizing influence in the Middle East would have to be overcome to end the conflict in Yemen, as the United States weighs increasing support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting there.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis addresses a news conference during a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, February 16, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir - RTSYYF5

At least 10,000 people have been killed and more than 3 million displaced in the war in Yemen, now in its third year. Millions of people are also struggling to feed themselves.

“We will have to overcome Iran’s efforts to destabilize yet another country and create another militia in their image of Lebanese Hezbollah, but the bottom line is we are on the right path for it,” Mattis told reporters in Riyadh after meeting senior Saudi officials.

Mattis said the goal was for there to be a political solution through U.N.-brokered negotiations to resolve the conflict in Yemen.

Officials have said the United States is considering deepening its role in the conflict in Yemen by more directly assisting its Gulf allies, who are fighting Iranian-supported Houthi rebels there.

U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the situation in Yemen came up in their meetings with Saudi officials, including with King Salman and Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman.

Officials said U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition was discussed including what more assistance the United States could provide, including potential intelligence support, saying they were weighing boosting the same type of support already being given.

Officials said it did not appear that the Houthis would come to the negotiating table under the current circumstances and there needed to be more military pressure on the group, adding that any potential increase in support would not include U.S. troops.

The Iran-aligned Houthis control the Yemeni capital Sanaa and large swathes of territory. The United States backs the Saudi-led coalition which is trying to restore the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, including through a devastating aerial bombing campaign.

The United Nations called on Yemen’s warring parties earlier this month to safeguard the strategic Red Sea port of Hodeidah as a lifeline for millions of Yemenis facing potential famine.

The Yemeni government and its Arab allies are preparing an assault on Hodeidah port, which has been the entry point of nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s food imports, because they say the Iran-aligned Houthis use it to smuggle weapons and ammunition.

The U.S. officials said that the port was being looked at closely by the coalition, specifically how long it would take for any damage to the port to be fixed and what disruption an assault would cause to the imports.

Speaking earlier in the day before the start of a meeting with the deputy crown prince, Mattis said he hoped his trip could potentially open the door for U.S. President Donald Trump to visit Saudi Arabia.

Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Toby Chopra