US President Donald Trump said Friday that he believes Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was planning attacks against four US embassies before he was killed last week in an American airstrike in Baghdad.
“I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies,” Trump said in an excerpt from an interview due to air Friday night on Fox News. “Probably it was going to be the embassy in Baghdad.”
The remarks added some detail to a series of often vague claims made by US officials when asked why Trump, who faces an impeachment trial and a tough reelection fight, ordered the high-risk operation to kill Soleimani.
The administration has pushed back against accusations that Trump acted recklessly, insisting that Soleimani was on the brink of launching an attack and had to be stopped.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the US had “specific information” on “imminent” attacks “against American facilities, including American embassies, military bases.”
In response to the January 3 strike on Soleimani, Iran on Wednesday fired volleys of ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases housing US troops, without causing casualties.
While Trump said he would not respond further militarily, Washington is intent on maintaining pressure on Tehran, announcing new sanctions on Iran’s already crippled economy.
The sanctions mean “we will cut off billions of dollars of support to the Iranian regime,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters at the White House.
The measures targeting Iran’s steel industry and eight state officials came on top of massive sanctions already aimed at bringing the country’s economy to its knees.
The US has been at loggerheads with Iran, a fierce regional rival of American allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, for decades.
Soon after Trump came into office he withdrew from an international accord meant to give Iran the ability to develop civilian nuclear power while under supervision. Trump accused Tehran of cheating and trying to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Also in the Fox interview, Trump dismissed calls by Iraqi officials for US troops to leave Iraq amid uproar from Iraqi Shi’ite groups over Soleimani’s killing.
“That’s what they [the Iraqis] say publicly. They don’t say that privately,” he said.
The comments as the US State Department bluntly rejected a request from Iraq’s caretaker prime minister to work out a road map for an American troop withdrawal, saying the two sides should instead talk about how to “recommit” to their partnership.
Thousands of anti-government protesters turned out Friday in Baghdad and southern Iraq, many calling on both Iran and America to leave Iraq, reflecting their anger and frustration over the two rivals — both allies of Iraq — trading blows on its soil.
The request from Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi pointed to his determination to push ahead with demands for US troops to leave Iraq, stoked by the drone strike on Soleimani. In a phone call Thursday night, Abdul-Mahdi told Pompeo that recent US actions were unacceptable breaches of Iraqi sovereignty and a violation of their security agreements, his office said.
He asked Pompeo to “send delegates to Iraq to prepare a mechanism” to carry out the Iraqi Parliament’s resolution on withdrawing foreign troops, according to the statement.
Abdul-Mahdi signaled he was standing by the push for US forces to leave despite signs of de-escalation by Tehran and Washington after Iran’s retaliation.
The State Department said US troops are crucial for the fight against the Islamic State extremist group and it would not discuss removing them.
Pompeo indicated Friday the troops would remain, adding that the US would continue its mission to help train Iraqi security forces and counter Islamic State.
“Our mission set there is very clear. We’ve been there to perform a training mission to help the Iraqi security forces be successful and to continue the campaign against ISIS, to continue the counter-Daesh campaign,” he said during an unrelated appearance at the White House, using alternate acronyms for the militant group.
There are some 5,200 US troops in Iraq assisting and providing training to Iraqi security counterparts to fight IS. An American pullout could deeply set back efforts to crush remnants of the jihadist group amid concerns of its resurgence during the political turmoil.