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Pompeo defends US-Saudi relationship despite Khashoggi murder

Washington(CNN) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fiercely defended the Trump administration's support for Saudi Arabia in light of the outrage over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, accusing critics of ignoring regional threats posed by Iran.

The Wall Street Journal op-ed published late Tuesday came one day ahead of Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis' scheduled classified briefing before the Senate on the war in Yemen. Senators have said they will bring up the administration's response to Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi's murder.

"The October murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has heightened the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on," Pompeo wrote. "But degrading U.S.-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the U.S. and its allies."

He pushed the administration's message that the "kingdom is a powerful force for stability in the Middle East," pointing to its contributions in fighting ISIS and other terrorists in the region and containing the threat from Iran, among other things.

"Is it any coincidence that the people using the Khashoggi murder as a cudgel against President Trump's Saudi Arabia policy are the same people who supported Barack Obama's rapprochement with Iran—a regime that has killed thousands world-wide, including hundreds of Americans, and brutalizes its own people?" Pompeo argued.

However, it's not only Democrats who have slammed the administration's handling of the Khashoggi affair. GOP Sens. Bob Corker, who heads the Foreign Relations Committee, as well as Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul and Ben Sasse have publicly called for a tougher stance against the Saudis, and several European countries that supported the Iran nuclear deal have taken action against the Saudis.

Pompeo -- who argued that diminishing the alliance would "do nothing to push Riyadh in a better direction at home" -- noted that the US sanctioned 17 Saudis in response to Khashoggi's brutal murder.

"The Trump administration will consider further punitive measures if more facts about Khashoggi's murder come to light," he wrote.

Sources have told CNN that the CIA has assessed with high confidence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directed Khashoggi's murder, which was carried out by members of bin Salman's inner circle in October.

However, the agency has not made a final conclusion, giving the White House an out. President Donald Trump has raised doubts about the CIA's assessment, and has signaled that he will not take strong action against Saudi Arabia.

CNN's Zachary Cohen, Manu Raju, Phil Mattingly and Elizabeth Landers contributed to this report.