(Adds comments from U.S. source, senators on Yemen-related legislation)
By Lesley Wroughton and Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON, Oct 31 (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Wednesday reinforced its call for a ceasefire in Yemen and said the “climate is right” for the combatants to return to U.N.-backed peace talks to end the more than three-year war.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Tuesday both urged an end to hostilities and resumption of talks that collapsed in September, drawing praise from U.S. senators critical of U.S. inaction in Yemen.
The State Department’s deputy spokesman, Robert Palladino, on Wednesday urged the Iran-aligned Houthi group to immediately cease missile and drone strikes in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and told the Saudi-led coalition to halt air strikes in populated areas in Yemen.
“We have come to the assessment that the climate is right at this time to move forward,” Palladino told reporters.
A U.S. source familiar with the issue said that one of the driving factors is progress made by U.N. special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, during a September visit to the Houthi-held capital, Sanaa.
At that time, Houthi leaders expressed an interest in participating in talks that Griffiths wants to occur in November, the source said.
“They want to be there,” the source said of the Houthis, adding that the war, a looming famine, economic desperation and growing public resentment against the rebels “is not good for them either.”
Mattis, who on Tuesday called for a ceasefire within 30 days, said the Saudis and UAE appeared ready to embrace efforts by Griffiths to find a negotiated solution.
The Saudi-led coalition has massed thousands of troops near Yemen’s main port city of Hodeidah, local military sources said on Wednesday, in a move to pressure the Houthis to return to talks.
Another major factor behind the new push for talks, the U.S. source said, is anger from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and their growing frustration over mounting civilian casualties caused by the Saudi-led coalition’s air campaign against the Houthis.
Those feelings intensified with the Oct. 2 murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post who lived in the United States and was a critic of the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“The bombing of the school bus took it (anger on Capitol Hill) from a seven to a nine and a half,” the source said, referring to an Aug. 9 Saudi airstrike that killed at least 44 children. “Khashoggi was probably dragging it over the line.”
Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Senator Todd Young, who have worked together on Yemen-related legislation, applauded what they called the “overdue diplomatic surge.”
Sheehan said “it’s past time for the United States to use our leverage to help end this horrific war.”
Young said that when the Senate returns after the Nov. 6 elections he planned to introduce legislation that would end U.S. air refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft in Yemen. (Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; writing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)