Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 February 2020

Donald Trump reverses on targeting Iran’s 'cultural sites'

US Secretary of Defence said he expected Tehran to retaliate after killing of Qassem Suleimani

Donald Trump on Tuesday did not rule out withdrawal from Iraq in the long-term but  said this isn't the right time. Tasos Katopodis/UPI/Bloomberg
Donald Trump on Tuesday did not rule out withdrawal from Iraq in the long-term but  said this isn't the right time. Tasos Katopodis/UPI/Bloomberg

US President Donald Trump has retreated from a threat to target more than 50 of Iran’s cultural sites if Tehran retaliated after the killing of its top general Qassem Suleimani.

If the US was to carry out such an act, it would be considered a war crime under international law.

Iran said it would retaliate after Suleimani was killed on Friday at Baghdad airport in a US drone strike.

Speaking from the Oval Office on Tuesday, Mr Trump adjusted his language after receiving widespread backlash over his threat to obliterate the cultural sites.

“We are, according to various laws, supposed to be very careful with their cultural heritage. And you know what, if that's what the law is, I like to obey the law,” he said.

In a tweet on Saturday, Mr Trump threatened to target 52 Iranian sites that were important to Iran and its culture.

He added to his comments on Sunday, considering the potential act a fair game for the US in an event of a military confrontation.

“They [Iran’s government] are allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They are 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,” he said.

His change of position comes following a public backlash and pushback from both the US State and Defence departments against such a move.

Mr Trump staunchly defended the strike he ordered against Suleimani.

“He was travelling with the head of [Iraqi militia Kataib] Hezbollah. They weren't there to discuss a vacation,” Mr Trump said.

He also hinted at releasing classified information on what his government considered an “imminent plot” by Suleimani. “They were planning something and you're going to be hearing about it or at least various people in Congress are going to be hearing about it tomorrow," Mr Trump said.

He did not rule out withdrawing US forces from Iraq in the long-term but said now wasn't the right time.

"At some point we want to get out. But this isn't the right point. The other thing is, if we do get out, we've spent a tremendous amount of money on building airports and building one of the largest embassies we have in the world. And we want to be reimbursed to the various costs that we have had," he said.

Mr Trump’s comments came as US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said he fully expected Tehran to retaliate for the strike.

"I think we should expect they will retaliate in some way, shape or form," the Pentagon chief said on Tuesday.

The US justified the attack by citing intelligence that Suleimani was planning “an imminent attack” on US forces.

Mr Esper said it was "more than fair to say" the attack Suleimani was allegedly planning to execute would have been carried out in days rather than weeks.

Mr Esper said Washington was seeking diplomatic solution with Iran but that Tehran needed to de-escalate.

In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Mr Esper said the US was not prepared to start a war with Iran, but “was prepared to finish one”.

He reaffirmed the US was not planning to withdraw troops from Iraq, despite the country’s parliament having voting to expel foreign forces on Sunday.

Mr Esper pointed to the defensive nature of the strike on Suleimani and denied claims the intelligence behind it was “razor thin”, insisting it was “persuasive”.

Asked about the letter sent on Monday from a US commander to his Iraqi counterpart to plan the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Mr Esper repeated that the US did not plan to withdraw its forces from the country.

He denied there was a signed letter from the US announcing an exit.

"Our policy has not changed. We are not leaving Iraq," Mr Esper said.

"There is no signed letter, to the best of my knowledge."

Earlier on Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi said he received signed copies of a US letter describing steps to "move out" of the country.

At a briefing at the State Department on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to give direct evidence of imminent threats from Iran or Iranian proxies in the region. However, he defended the decision to kill Suleimani, saying it was “entirely legal”.

Updated: January 8, 2020 10:16 AM

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