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."