US President Donald Trump insists that 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 that he would levy punishing sanctions if it expelled American troops in retaliation for a US airstrike in Baghdad that killed a top Iranian official.
Trump’s comments came amid escalating tensions in the Middle East following the killing of 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 flew back 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 said.
The targeted killing of 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.
Iraq’s parliament voted Sunday in favor of a non-binding resolution calling for the expulsion of the American forces.
Trump said the US 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 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.”
The administration has scrambled to contend with the backlash to the killing of Soleimani.
Though Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans, the targeted American strike marked a stark escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tip-toed around questions about Trump’s threat to attack Iranian cultural sites, a military action that likely would be illegal under the laws of armed conflict and the U.N. charter.
Pompeo said only that any US military strikes inside Iran would be legal.
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.”