Donald Trump: Iran's cultural sites are fair game for US military

US President Donald Trump insists Iranian cultural sites are fair game for the US military, dismissing concerns within his own administration that doing so could constitute a war crime under international law.

He also warned Iraq he would levy punishing sanctions if it expelled American troops in retaliation for a US airstrike in Baghdad that killed a top Iranian official.

Mr Trump's comments on Sunday came amid escalating tensions in the Middle East following the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds force.

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Iran has vowed to retaliate and Iraq's parliament responded by voting on Sunday to oust US troops based in the country.

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Mr Trump first raised the prospect of targeting Iranian cultural sites Saturday in a tweet. Speaking with reporters as he flew back to Washington from his holiday stay in Florida on Sunday 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 killing of General Soleimani sparked outrage in the Middle East, including in Iraq, where more than 5,000 American troops are still on the ground 17 years after the US invasion.

President Trump said Iranian cultural saids were fair game for the US military. Picture: APPresident Trump said Iranian cultural saids were fair game for the US military. Picture: AP
President Trump said Iranian cultural saids were fair game for the US military. Picture: AP

American expulsion

Iraq's parliament voted on Sunday in favour of a non-binding resolution calling for the expulsion of the American forces.

Mr Trump said the US would not 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 penalties.

"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."

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The administration has scrambled to contend with the backlash to the killing of General Soleimani. Though he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, the American strike marked a stark escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Military strikes

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US military may well strike more Iranian leaders if the Islamic Republic retaliates. He tip-toed around questions about Mr Trump's threat to attack Iranian cultural sites, a military action that likely would be illegal under the laws of armed conflict and the UN charter.

Mr Pompeo said any US military strikes inside Iran would be legal.

"We'll behave inside the system," Mr Pompeo said. "We always have and we always will."

Mr Trump's warnings rattled some administration officials. One US national security official said the president had caught many in the administration off guard and prompted internal calls for others in the government, including Mr Pompeo, to clarify the matter. The official, who was not authorised to speak publicly, said clarification was necessary to affirm 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 Defence Department's legal office, said Mr Trump's threat amounted to "a pretty clear promise of commission of a war crime".

The president's threats to Iran did little to quell Tehran's furore over the death of General Soleimani.

Iranian state television reported the country would no longer abide by any limits of the 2015 nuclear deal it signed with the United States and other world powers.

Legality of the strike

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Mr Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 and stepped up economic sanctions on Tehran - actions that accelerated a cycle of hostilities leading to the last Friday's assassination.

The administration also pushed back on Sunday on questions about the legality of the strike on General Soleimani.

Mr 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 General Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on Americans. Instead of arguing 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."

Some Congressional Democrats were sceptical.

"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.

Mr Schumer said Mr Trump lacked 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."

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Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said the administration violated the Constitution by not consulting with Congress in advance.

Congressional staffs received their first briefings from the administration on Friday, and members were expected to be briefed this week.

But Mr Trump made clear on Sunday he sees little reason to give Congress advanced warning if he orders the military to carry out further actions against Iran.

"These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any US 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!"

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, Ms 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.

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