WASHINGTON (AP) — US President Donald Trump insisted Sunday that Iranian cultural sites were fair game for the US military, dismissing concerns within his own administration that doing so would constitute a war crime under international law.
He also warned Iraq that the US would levy punishing sanctions if it expelled American troops in retaliation for a US 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 US 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 told reporters aboard Air Force One as he returned to Washington from a holiday stay at his Florida estate.
“If they do anything there will be major retaliation,” he 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 US invasion. Iraq’s parliament voted Sunday in favor of a nonbinding resolution calling for the expulsion of the American forces.
Trump cast his response to Parliament’s decision in monetary terms, saying the US expected to be paid for its military investments in Iraq before leaving the country and threatening economic sanctions if the US is not treated properly.
“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he told reporters.
“If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, 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.”
Trump earlier Sunday warned Tehran that the US would respond quickly to any any Iranian strike and threatened that American retaliation could be disproportionate.
Trump’s warning, in a Tweet sent Sunday afternoon was framed as a notice to Congress of his intent to act.
“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 Sunday afternoon. “Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!”
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. Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 5, 2020
Speaking on several US TV shows Sunday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had tip-toed around questions about Trump’s tweet Saturday threatening to attack Iranian cultural sites, a military action that likely would be illegal under the laws of armed conflict and the UN charter.
Trump wrote that if Iran were to strike “any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”
Pompeo said any US military strikes inside Iran would be legal.
“We’ll behave inside the system,” Pompeo said. “We always have and we always will.”
One US national security official said Trump’s threat had caught many in the administration off guard and prompted calls for others in the government, including Pompeo, to clarify the matter. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly to the issue, said clarification was necessary to affirm that the US 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 in an interview that Trump’s threat amounted to “a pretty clear promise of commission of a war crime.” She said the Soleimani killing likely also was illegal because the administration has not shown the threat he posed was imminent in the sense that it was so urgent that action was required without consulting Congress.
She cited legal problems with both of Trump’s Saturday threats — the threat to hit 52 targets in Iran for symbolic reasons, and the threat to strike Iranian cultural sites. Both, she said, would be war crimes — the targeting of 52 sites because Trump justifies it on symbolic grounds of retribution for Iran’s hostage-taking 40 years, and the hitting of cultural sites because that would be illegal under the 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of cultural sites.
The Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, referred questions about the Trump tweet to the White House.
Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report