WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump insisted Sunday that Iranian cultural sites were fair game for the U.S. military, dismissing concerns within his own administration that doing so would constitute a war crime under international law. He also warned Iraq that the U.S. would levy punishing sanctions if it expelled American troops in retaliation for a U.S. strike in Baghdad that killed a top Iranian official.
Trump’s comments came amid escalating tensions in the Middle East following Friday’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 U.S. 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 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 U.S. invasion. Iraq’s parliament voted Sunday in favor of a nonbinding resolution calling for the expulsion of the American forces.
Trump said the U.S. 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 levy punishing economic penalties on Baghdad.
“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.”
Earlier Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. military may strike more Iranian leaders if the Islamic Republic retaliates. His comments came as other repercussions from the attack played out: the U.S. military coalition in Baghdad suspended training of Iraqi forces to concentrate on defending coalition troops; and in Beirut, the Lebanese Hezbollah chief said U.S. forces throughout the Mideast are fair targets for retaliation.
In Tehran, Iranian state television reported that the country will no longer abide by any limits of the 2015 nuclear deal it signed with the United States and other world powers. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018 and stepped up economic sanctions on Tehran — actions that accelerated a cycle of hostilities leading to the Soleimani killing.
The State Department had no immediate comment on Iran reportedly abandoning the nuclear deal, a move that holds the prospect of Iran accelerating its production of materials for a nuclear weapon.