Tough talk from President Trump warning Iran if American troops are expelled in retaliation for the U.S. airstrike in Bagdad that killed a top Iranian official.
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Trump also insists that Iranian cultural sites are fair game for the U.S. military, dismissing concerns within his own administration that doing so could constitute a war crime under international law.
Trump’s comments Sunday 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 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 flew back to Washington from his holiday stay in Florida, he doubled down, despite international prohibitions.
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 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 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 he 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 said the U.S. military may well strike more Iranian leaders if the Islamic Republic retaliates. He 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 U.S. military strikes inside Iran would be legal.
“We'll behave inside the system,” Pompeo said. “We always have and we always will.”
Trump’s warnings rattled some administration officials. One U.S. national security official said the president had caught many in the administration off guard and prompted internal calls for others in the government, including Pompeo, to clarify the matter.
The president’s threats to Iran did little to quell Tehran’s furor over the death of Soleimani. Iranian state television reported that the country would 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 last week’s killing.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said the administration violated the Constitution by not consulting with Congress in advance.
Congressional staffs got their first briefings from the administration on Friday, and members were expected to be briefed this week.
But Trump made clear Sunday that he saw little reason to give Congress advanced warning if he orders the military to carry out further actions against Iran.
Democrats in Congress have complained that Trump’s order to kill Soleimani took place without first consulting with or informing top lawmakers, noting that Congress still holds sole power to declare war.
Trump did meet the 48-hour deadline required by the War Powers Act to notify Congress of the deadly drone strike, though the document provided Saturday was entirely classified and no public version was released.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.