WASHINGTON (AP) — President Trump insists that Iranian cultural sites are fair game for the U.S. military, dismissing concerns within his own administration that doing so could constitute a war crime under international law. He also warned Iraq that he would levy punishing sanctions if it expelled U.S. troops in retaliation for the assassination, in Iraq, of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Trump’s comments Sunday came amid escalating tensions in the Middle East after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds force. Iran vowed to retaliate and Iraq’s parliament responded by voting Sunday to oust U.S. troops from the country.
Trump raised the prospect of targeting Iranian cultural sites Saturday in a tweet. Speaking with reporters Sunday as he flew back to Washington from his holiday 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 assassination of Soleimani sparked outrage in the Middle East, including in Iraq, where more than 5,000 U.S. troops are still on the ground 17 years after the U.S. invasion. Iraq’s parliament voted Sunday for a nonbinding resolution calling for the expulsion of the U.S. forces.
Trump said the United States 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 hit Baghdad with economic sanctions.
“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.”
The administration has scrambled to contend with the backlash to the assassination. Though Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, the targeted American strike was a stark escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. military may well kill more Iranian leaders if the Islamic Republic retaliates. He tiptoed around questions about Trump’s threat to attack Iranian cultural sites, a military action that would be illegal under the laws of armed conflict and the U.N. charter.
Pompeo said that any U.S. military strikes inside Iran would be legal.
“We’ll behave inside the system,” Pompeo said. “We always have and we always will.”
Trump’s warnings rattled some administration officials. One U.S. national security official said Trump had caught many in the administration off guard and prompted internal calls for others in the government, including Pompeo, to clarify the matter. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue, said clarification was necessary to affirm that the U.S. military would not intentionally commit war crimes.
Oona Hathaway, an international law professor at Yale and a former national security law official in the Defense Department’s legal office, said Trump’s threat amounted to “a pretty clear promise of commission of a war crime.”
Trump’s threats to Iran did nothing to quell Tehran’s furor over the death of Soleimani. Iranian state television reported that the country would no longer abide by any limits of the 2015 nuclear deal it signed with the United States and other world powers. Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018 and stepped up economic sanctions on Tehran — actions that accelerated a cycle of hostilities leading to last week’s assassination.
The administration pushed back Sunday on questions about the legality of the strike on Soleimani. Pompeo said the administration would have been “culpably negligent” in its duty to protect the United States if it had not killed him. 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.
“We watched him continue to actively build out for what was going to be a significant attack — that’s what we believed — and we made the right decision,” he said. “We continue to prepare for whatever it is the Iranian regime may put in front of us within the next 10 minutes, within the next 10 days, and within the next 10 weeks.”
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 that 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.”
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said the administration violated the Constitution by not consulting with Congress in advance of the assassination.
Congressional staffs got their first briefings from the administration Friday, and members were expected to be briefed this week.
But Trump made clear Sunday that he saw little reason to give Congress advanced warning if he orders the military to carry out more actions against Iran.
“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 on Twitter. “Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!”
Democrats in Congress have complained that Trump’s order to kill Soleimani took place without consulting with or informing top lawmakers, and that Congress still holds sole power to declare war. Trump did meet the 48-hour deadline required by the War Powers Act to notify Congress of the assassination, though the document provided Saturday was entirely classified and no public version was released.
Moving swiftly to rebuke Trump for not consulting with Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said late Sunday the House would introduce and vote this week on a war powers resolution to limit the president’s military actions regarding Iran. In a letter to House Democrats, Pelosi called the airstrike “provocative and disproportionate” and said it had “endangered our servicemembers, diplomats and others by risking a serious escalation of tensions with Iran.” A similar resolution was introduced in the Senate.
Some of the Democrats running to challenge Trump in November questioned whether he had a long-term plan for the Mideast.
Former Vice President Joe Biden said Trump was ill-prepared for the repercussions of the assassination and had alienated allies by not alerting them to the plans. “I think we need a president who could provide steady leadership on Day One,” he said. “The next president is going to inherit a divided nation and a world in disarray.”
Pete Buttigieg said: “When you’re dealing with the Middle East, you need to think about the next and the next and the next move. This is not checkers. And I’m not sure any of us really believe that this president and the people around him” are “really going through all of the consequences of what could happen next.”