Trump insists cultural sites in Iran are fair game
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump insisted Sunday that Iranian cultural sites were fair game for the U.S. military, dismissing concerns within his own administration that doing so would constitute a war crime under international law.
Trump also warned Iraq that the U.S. would levy punishing sanctions if it expelled American troops in retaliation for a U.S. strike in Baghdad that killed a top Iranian official.
Trump’s comments came amid escalating tensions in the Middle East following last week’s strike on Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds force. Iran has vowed to retaliate and Iraq’s parliament responded by voting Sunday to oust U.S. troops based in the country.
Trump first raised the prospect of targeting Iranian cultural sites Saturday in a tweet. Speaking with reporters Sunday as he returned to Washington from his holiday stay in Florida, he doubled down, despite international prohibitions.
“They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way,” Trump said.
The targeted killing of Soleimani sparked outrage
in the Middle East, including in Iraq, where more than 5,000 troops are still on the ground 17 years after the U.S. invasion. Iraq’s parliament voted Sunday in favor of a nonbinding resolution calling for the expulsion of the American forces.
Trump said the U.S. wouldn’t leave without being paid for its military investments in Iraq over the years — then said if the troops do have to withdraw, he would levy punishing economic penalties on Baghdad.
“We will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame,” he said. “If there’s any hostility, that they do anything we think is inappropriate, we are going to put sanctions on Iraq, very big sanctions on Iraq.”
He added: “We’re not leaving until they pay us back for it.”
More leaders in crosshairs: Earlier Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. military may strike more Iranian leaders if the Islamic Republic retaliates. His comments came as other repercussions from the attack played out: the U.S. military coalition in Baghdad suspended training of Iraqi forces to concentrate on defending coalition troops; and in Beirut, the Lebanese Hezbollah chief said U.S. forces throughout the Mideast are fair targets for retaliation.
Trump had issued warnings to Iran by tweet Sunday afternoon. “These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner,” he wrote. “Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!”
That tweet also appeared to serve as a warning to Congress — that Trump would respond quickly to any attack and without first gaining the approval of lawmakers. Democrats in Congress have complained that Trump’s order to kill Soleimani took place without first consulting with or informing top lawmakers, noting that Congress still holds sole power to declare war.
The White House faced a barrage of questions about the killing’s legality. Pompeo said the administration would have been “culpably negligent” in its duty to protect the United States if it had not killed Soleimani, although he did not provide evidence for his previous claims that Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on Americans. Instead of arguing that an attack had been imminent, he said it was inevitable.
Congressional Democrats were skeptical.
“I really worry that the actions the president took will get us into what he calls another endless war in the Middle East. He promised we wouldn’t have that,” said Chuck Schumer of New
York, the Senate’s top Democrat.
Schumer said Trump lacks the authority to engage militarily with Iran and Congress needs a new war powers resolution “to be a check on this president.” To which Pompeo said: “We have all the authority we need to do what we’ve done to date.”
Pompeo’s appearance on six news shows may have been aimed at dissuading Iran from launching a major retaliation for the Soleimani killing. The Iranians have said the U.S. should expect a strong response.
It was unclear whether the administration would attempt a back-door communication with Iran to tensions.