U.S. president, Saudi king have phone call ahead of expected Khashoggi report release


US State Department spokesman Ned Price speaks during the daily press briefing at the State Department in Washington, DC, U.S. February 25, 2021. Nicholas Kamm/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday told Saudi King Salman he would work for bilateral ties "as strong and transparent as possible," the White House said, ahead of the expected release of a sensitive U.S. intelligence report on the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The report is a declassified version of a top-secret assessment that sources say singles out the 85-year-old king's son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for approving the murder of Khashoggi in the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.

Saudi Arabia denies that the 35-year-old crown prince, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, approved the killing.

Biden and Salman discussed regional security and other issues and the new U.S. president told the Saudi monarch that "he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible," the White House said.

"The two leaders affirmed the historic nature of the relationship," the White House said in a statement. It did not mention the Khashoggi report, a test of the decades-long close ties between the allies as they try working together to confront growing Iranian influence in the Middle East.

Biden later told reporters the call, their first since he took office last month, was "good."

A Saudi news agency statement also sounded a positive note. It said Salman congratulated Biden on assuming the U.S. presidency and that the pair stressed "the depth" of bilateral ties and the "importance of strengthening the partnership."

The statement, which also did not mention the Khashoggi report, said the leaders reviewed "destabilizing" Iranian regional activities, the U.S. "commitment to defend" Saudi Arabia "against such threats" and an assurance from Biden not to allow Iran "to possess nuclear weapons."

A person familiar with the issue told Reuters that the report's release was awaiting the call. The release also was delayed as the crown prince underwent surgery earlier this week, the person said.

Khashoggi, who wrote Washington Post columns critical of the crown prince's policies, had been a U.S. resident.

The release of the declassified report on his death is part of Biden's recalibration of U.S.-Saudi relations in part over Khashoggi's murder.

But Biden has said he wants to maintain strong ties with one of Washington's closest Arab allies.

"Our administration is focused on recalibrating the relationship," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told an earlier briefing. "And certainly there are areas where we will express concerns and leave open the option of accountability."

"There are also areas where we will continue to work with Saudi Arabia given the threats they face in the region," she added in an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia's main rival and U.S. foe, Iran.

Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi mission in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018 and killed by a team of Saudi operatives linked to the crown prince. They dismembered his body, which has never been found.

Saudi Arabia called Khashoggi's death a "rogue" extradition operation gone awry, but denied the crown prince was involved.

Five people were convicted of the murder and given the death penalty in a 2019 trial, but their sentences were commuted to 20 years in jail after Khashoggi's family forgave them. Three other received sentences totaling 24 years.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a call on Thursday with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al Saud and "discussed the importance of Saudi progress on human rights," the State Department said.

They also discussed "joint efforts to bolster" Saudi defenses, and cooperation on ending the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is backing the government against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement, said State Department spokesman Ned Price.

(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw, Steve Holland and Jonathan Landay in Washington, and Marwa Rashad in London; Editing by Mary Milliken, Alistair Bell and Grant McCool)

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