Attacking Iran’s cultural sites could amount to a war crime Trump is warned by Democrats and Britain

President Donald Trump has been warned that attacking Iran’s cultural sites could constitute a war crime by the Democrats and the British government.  

Talking to reporters aboard Air Force One last night Trump said: ‘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.’

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday there was international law in place to prevent the destruction of cultural heritage.

Careful not to be drawn into a direct rebuke of the US, he told the reporter: ‘You can read the international conventions for yourself.’    

'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,' President Donald Trump said

'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,' President Donald Trump said

‘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,’ President Donald Trump said

On Saturday, Trump tweeted that he would strike 52 Iranian sites, including targets important to Iranian culture, if Tehran attacks Americans or U.S. assets. The number a symbol of the 52 American hostages held by Tehran during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis

On Saturday, Trump tweeted that he would strike 52 Iranian sites, including targets important to Iranian culture, if Tehran attacks Americans or U.S. assets. The number a symbol of the 52 American hostages held by Tehran during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis

On Saturday, Trump tweeted that he would strike 52 Iranian sites, including targets important to Iranian culture, if Tehran attacks Americans or U.S. assets. The number a symbol of the 52 American hostages held by Tehran during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis

Tourists visit Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, northeast of the Iranian city of Shiraz (file photo)

Tourists visit Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, northeast of the Iranian city of Shiraz (file photo)

Tourists visit Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, northeast of the Iranian city of Shiraz (file photo)

Meanwhile Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren, who is running for her party’s presidential nomination, said Trump was ‘threatening to commit war crimes’. 

On Saturday, Trump tweeted that he would strike 52 Iranian sites, including targets important to Iranian culture, if Tehran attacks Americans or US assets. The number a symbol of the 52 American hostages held by Tehran during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis.

A Twitter hashtag for #IranianCulturalSites began trending, with people sharing their favourite images of heritage sites and condemning the President.

One shared images of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, a stunning temple completed in 1619 during the time of the Safavid Empire.

The Twitter user wrote: ‘Who can destroy cultural historical places but an uncultured little boy! History won’t forget even your threat!! #IranianCulturalSites belongs to whole humanity, who think you are @realDonaldTrump!’

Iran, which lies in the Cradle of Civilisation, is home to 24 UNESCO World Heritage sites and other priceless ancient artefacts from its rich history.  

Indeed, the US and its Western allies were highly critical of recent destruction in Syria – which holds a similar number of heritage treasures – by Islamic State jihadists.

According to the UN’s 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, it is a war crime to desecrate cultural property in military action.

Trump’s threat to go after cultural sites has even rattled administration officials, with one saying off the record that clarification was needed to confirm that the US would not intentionally attack such sites.

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.’  

Qassem Soleimani

Qassem Soleimani

Soleimani (pictured) was killed in a US drone strike near Baghdad airport on Friday, shocking the Islamic republic and sending tensions spiralling in the Middle East 

Iranian state media said 'millions' of people had gathered in Tehran on Monday to mourn Soleimani's death in scenes not witnessed since the death of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989

Iranian state media said 'millions' of people had gathered in Tehran on Monday to mourn Soleimani's death in scenes not witnessed since the death of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989

Iranian state media said ‘millions’ of people had gathered in Tehran on Monday to mourn Soleimani’s death in scenes not witnessed since the death of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989

The president’s critics have also accused him of launching the attack on General Qassem Soleimani to boost his popularity before he faces an impeachment trial in the coming weeks. 

In a letter Monday to Trump, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Robert Menendez said the White House’s classified notification sent to Congress late Saturday under the War Powers Act was insufficient and inappropriate.

‘It is critical that national security matters of such import be shared with the American people in a timely manner,’ they wrote. ‘An entirely classified notification is simply not appropriate in a democratic society.’

They asked that the notification be declassified ‘in full.’

Congress has registered unease with Trump’s decision to strike in Iraq without advance notice to lawmakers and then to send the notification, which is required under the War Powers Act, as entirely classified.

Trump’s comments Sunday came amid escalating tensions in the Middle East following the killing of Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds force.

In this file photo taken on April 12, 2018 people visit the historical Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan

In this file photo taken on April 12, 2018 people visit the historical Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan

In this file photo taken on April 12, 2018 people visit the historical Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan

In this file photo taken on February 15, 2019 Iranians walk on the 'Si-o-Se Pol' bridge (33 Arches bridge) over the Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan

In this file photo taken on February 15, 2019 Iranians walk on the 'Si-o-Se Pol' bridge (33 Arches bridge) over the Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan

In this file photo taken on February 15, 2019 Iranians walk on the ‘Si-o-Se Pol’ bridge (33 Arches bridge) over the Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan

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

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. 

Trump has said the US wouldn’t leave Iraq without being paid for its military investments in 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.

Sheikh-safi tomb, Ardabil, Iran

Sheikh-safi tomb, Ardabil, Iran

Sheikh-safi tomb, Ardabil, Iran

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 official, who was not authorized to speak publicly to the issue, said clarification was necessary to affirm that the U.S. military would not intentionally commit war crimes.

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.’

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.

The administration also pushed back Sunday on questions about the legality of the strike on Soleimani. 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 Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on Americans. Instead of arguing that an attack had been imminent, he said it was inevitable.

The Azadi (Freedom) tower is illuminated in the Iranian capital, Tehran. Iran's ancient and rich cultural landscape has become a potential U.S. military target as Washington and Tehran stumble toward a possible open conflict

The Azadi (Freedom) tower is illuminated in the Iranian capital, Tehran. Iran's ancient and rich cultural landscape has become a potential U.S. military target as Washington and Tehran stumble toward a possible open conflict

The Azadi (Freedom) tower is illuminated in the Iranian capital, Tehran. Iran’s ancient and rich cultural landscape has become a potential U.S. military target as Washington and Tehran stumble toward a possible open conflict

The shrine of Iran's revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini is seen, just outside of Tehran, Iran

The shrine of Iran's revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini is seen, just outside of Tehran, Iran

The shrine of Iran’s revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini is seen, just outside of Tehran, Iran

‘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, adding later: ‘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.’

Congressional Democrats were skeptical.

‘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,’ Schumer said.

Schumer said Trump lacks 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.’

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.

‘These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. 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!’

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.

The "Si-o-Se Pol" bridge (33 Arches bridge) over the Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan

The "Si-o-Se Pol" bridge (33 Arches bridge) over the Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan

The ‘Si-o-Se Pol’ bridge (33 Arches bridge) over the Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan

Moving swiftly to rebuke Trump for not consulting with Congress, 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, 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.

Some of the Democrats running to challenge Trump in November questioned whether he had a long-term plan for the Mideast.

Former Vice President Joe Biden said Trump was ill-prepared for the repercussions of the strike on Soleimani and had alienated allies by not alerting them of the plans. Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said, ‘When you’re dealing with the Middle East, you need to think about the next and the next and the next move. This is not checkers.’

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