Touring US troops to Saudi Arabia, Pompeo touts 'maximum pressure' on Iran amid heightened tensions

Lawmakers urged him to raise the case of an American still under Saudi custody.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toured with American troops deployed by President Donald Trump to Saudi Arabia, as tensions with Iran remain high over crippling aggression and U.S. sanctions, less than two months after the countries stood on the brink of war.

Ahead of his latest visit to the kingdom, top U.S. lawmakers had urged Pompeo to also raise human rights issues, especially the case of an American citizen reportedly tortured in Saudi custody -- something Pompeo said he was "sure I'll bring up."

But while he told reporters he would discuss "a wide range of human rights issues," the top U.S. diplomat made clear his focus is on the remaining potential for conflict with Iran.

"Their desire to wipe the state of Israel off the map and to do harm to the United States of America remains, and our aim is to change that behavior from the regime, and there remains a great deal of work to do to deliver on that ultimate objective," Pompeo told reporters Thursday.

After meeting Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud Thursday, Pompeo flew from Riyadh to Prince Sultan Air Base, where U.S. troops are stationed to support the Saudis' defenses after a sophisticated attack on Saudi Aramco facilities on Sept. 14 that cut Saudi oil production by half. That deployment includes F-15 fighter aircraft and a nearby U.S. Patriot battery, which Pompeo toured.

"The fact that so many young American men and women are here and in other facilities not only here in Saudi Arabia, but in Iraq, indeed in Qatar and folks part of the NAVCENT Fifth Fleet, I think, demonstrates that the demand for deterrence remains," he said.

Trump has sent about 20,000 more U.S. service members to the Middle East since last May as Iran ramped up its attacks on commercial oil vessels and facilities in a backlash to his "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran -- firing rocket attacks against U.S. facilities in Iraq, downing an American drone, and even conducting a mass attack on Aramco's oil processing facilities with nearly a dozen cruise missiles and over 20 drones.

In December, one of those rocket attacks against an Iraqi base killed an American contractor, sparking a cycle of escalating violence. The U.S. retaliated by killing at least 25 members of an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militia, and days later, the militia and its supporters stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. When the assault ended, a U.S. drone killed Qassem Soleimani, perhaps the second most powerful figure in Iraq and commander of its elite Quds Force. Less than a week later, Iranian ballistic missiles rained down on two Iraqi bases that house U.S. troops, injuring 109 Americans.

While the cycle seemed to end there, high tensions remain between the two sides, with Trump's tight economic sanctions still in place. What Iran has derided as "economic terrorism," Pompeo praised for "draining their capacity to conduct strategic activity in the region and destabilize the Middle East."

"They're having to make harder choices today. It will take time," he added. "There remains work to do."

While in Riyadh, Pompeo is also expected to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the real power broker behind his father's throne. In those meetings, the top Democrat and Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee have called on Pompeo to press for the charges against Dr. Walid Fitaihi to be dropped and for he and his family to be permitted to leave the country.

Fitaihi is a dual Saudi-American citizen who was detained for 21 months by Saudi officials -- arrested in late 2017 as part of the sweeping crackdown orchestrated by Crown Prince Mohammed against wealthy Saudis that he accused of stealing from the kingdom. Fitaihi and his family allege that he was tortured by Saudi officials once -- slapped, blindfolded, stripped to his underwear, bound to a chair, and shocked with electricity, they told the New York Times.

A Saudi official denied that Fitaihi was tortured, telling ABC News last August the reports "are without foundation. ... The Law of Criminal Procedure and other legal provisions in the Kingdom prohibit torture and hold accountable anyone involved in such abuse of power."

Fitaihi was released from custody at the time, the official said, but he and his family -- all U.S. citizens -- have been barred from leaving the country while he awaits trial, according to U.S. lawmakers.

Saudi Arabia, like several other countries, only recognizes the citizenship of their nationals, even if they are dual citizens.

Fitaihi became a U.S. citizen while in medical school in the Boston area, where he worked as a doctor for years before returning to his native Saudi Arabia in 2006 to found a hospital. His case has sparked fierce bipartisan condemnation in Congress -- even prompting Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to say the crown prince had gone "full gangster."

Before Pompeo left Ethiopia for Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the House Foreign Affairs chairman and ranking member, urged him to raise Fitaihi's case.

"It has been a consistent priority of the United States -- throughout Democratic and Republican administrations -- to free Americans abroad from unjust detention," they said in a letter. "We urge you to build on these successes and press the Saudi government to resolve the case against Dr. Fitaihi and allow him and his family to come home to the United States."

Five Democratic senators sent Pompeo another letter, with almost the exact same language calling for him to press senior Saudi officials about Fitaihi's case. But in their note, Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Ron Wyden of Oregon added, "We urge you to also advocate for the rights of all those unjustly detained in Saudi Arabia, especially American citizens."

There are several high-profile cases of Saudi dissidents or political activists who remain imprisoned, especially women's rights activists that demonstrated for the right to drive and a loosening of the male guardianship rules over women's lives. Under Crown Prince Mohammed, sometimes known by his initials MBS, some of those rules have been relaxed, including granting women the right to drive.

But the most prominent female activists have remained imprisoned since then, and four have said they have been tortured, according to human rights groups.

Loujain al Hathloul, detained since May 2018 for her work promoting women's rights in the kingdom, including defying the previous ban on women driving, turned down an offer to finally secure her freedom, but only if she denied being tortured while in custody, according to her family.

A Saudi official denied she was tortured, too.

The Trump administration has been criticized by both sides of the aisle in Congress for doing little to condemn the Saudi government's human rights record, including denying that MBS played a role in the killing and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The administration has defied several orders from Congress to provide an accounting of what role the Crown Prince played in the gruesome murder.

En route to Riyadh, Pompeo was asked by the traveling press if he would raise Fitaihi's case: "I'm sure I'll bring up that issue," he responded, adding that on trips to the kingdom as CIA Director and now the top U.S. diplomat he's "raised these important issues, the issues that matter a lot to the American people.