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By Yara Bayoumy and Warren Strobel
WASHINGTON, Nov. 22. (Reuters) – US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia to ease its blockade of Yemen, two sources said, just days before the Saudi-led military coalition announced on Wednesday that it would allow aid to flow through the Yemeni port of Hodeidah and allow UN flights to the capital.
It was not clear whether Washington's pressure was the direct cause of Saudi Arabia's change of heart, but Tillerson's request to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was one of several US attempts this month to that Riyadh softens his hard line. foreign policy.
Tillerson called for a relaxation of the blockade in Yemen during a telephone call of approximately 45 minutes at the beginning of this week, according to a source familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.
R.C. Hammond, one of Tillerson's chief advisors, confirmed the exchange with Prince Mohammed. The secretary of state "has taken the request to (the) Saudis several times in recent months," he added.
The Trump administration, according to US officials and a European diplomat, also pressured the Saudis to allow Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to return to Beirut after he flew to Riyadh on November 4 and abruptly announced his resignation.
Efforts to take advantage of Saudi Arabia's foreign policy reflect the growing concern of the United States. UU On the direction of Riyadh, despite President Donald Trump's high profile attempts to improve relations with the American ally for a long time.
Publicly, Trump, his top aides and senior Saudi officials have praised what they say is a great improvement in US-Saudi relations compared to former President Barack Obama's relations, which angered the Saudis by sealing a nuclear agreement with his archdiocese. enemy Iran.
In private, however, US diplomats and intelligence badysts express growing consternation over Riyadh's foreign policy, especially towards Yemen and Lebanon, as Saudi Arabia aims to contain Iranian influence.
"I understand that the administration is frustrated, of course, there have been varying degrees of frustration among different members of the administration," said US Sen. Todd Young of the situation in Yemen.
Young, a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke before the decision of the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia on Wednesday was announced.
The coalition, which fights the Houthi rebels, said it would allow access to humanitarian aid through Hodeidah and UN flights to the capital Sanaa, more than two weeks after blocking the country for stop the flow of weapons from Iran.
Yemen, in a civil war and under the bombing of a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, faces a deep humanitarian crisis and the aid workers warn of the famine if the blockade is not lifted.
A senior Saudi official told Reuters that even before Tillerson and Prince Mohammed spoke recently, senior White House officials had informed the Saudi ambbadador in Washington of the importance of taking those two steps.
"They stressed the importance of addressing the humanitarian situation in Yemen and we said that we understood and that the closures were temporary while we worked on a comprehensive aid and access plan," the official said.
An administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that White House and National Security Council officials worked to ease the blockade with senior Saudi officials, including Prince Mohammed and his younger brother Khalid, ambbadador Saudi in the United States.
Much of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, according to multiple US officials, is carried out in a closed circle and led by Trump's son-in-law and principal advisor, Jared Kushner, who has established a direct channel with the Prince Mohammed.
Kushner "did not oppose" the pressure on the Saudis and the UAE to alleviate the humanitarian suffering in Yemen, said a US official. UU
But the official added: "In no way does this change the position that Jared and the Crown Prince evidently share that the main objective is to reverse Iranian influence in Yemen and elsewhere."
On Lebanon, the US message Saudi Arabia on Hariri was broadcast in statements by Tillerson and in private conversations between US and Saudi officials. Those officials included the Saudi minister for Gulf affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan, who was in Washington recently, a senior administration official said.
"We encourage the Saudis to make it good for Lebanese political stability for Hariri to return to Beirut as soon as possible," the official said last week.
Hariri returned to Lebanon and shelved his decision to resign as prime minister, easing a crisis that had deepened tensions in the Middle East.
Leading Lebanese officials have said that Saudi Arabia forced Hariri to resign and held him in the kingdom. Riyadh and Hariri deny this. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay and John Walcott; Editing by Alistair Bell)