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Trump Again Eyes Iranian Cultural Sites, Says Iraq Faces Sanctions Over Possible U.S. Troop Withdrawal

US President Donald Trump makes a statement on Iran at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach Florida, on January 3, 2020.

After a 17-day sojourn at his Florida estate, U.S. President Donald Trump returned to Washington on January 5 facing the fallout from the strike he ordered to kill a powerful Iranian general.

According to White House media pool reports, Trump threatened Iraq with sanctions, reiterated a warning to bomb Iranian cultural sites, and vowed “major retaliation” if Iran to tries to avenge the killing if its top military commander Qasem Soleimani.

Responding to a decision by Iraqi’s parliament for the expulsion of U.S. troops after Soleimani was killed last week at the Baghdad airport, Trump said, “we’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” referring to a U.S. air base.

“We’ve spent a lot of money in Iraq,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One. “We have a very extraordinary air base there. It cost billions of dollars to build.”

Should Tehran retaliate for Soleimani’s killing, the U.S. president said he wouldn’t rule out striking Iranian cultural sites, dismissing concerns within his own administration that such an action would constitute a war crime under international law.

If Iran is “allowed to kill our people. They are 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.

Retaliation from Iran would be met with "major retaliation," he added.

Trump said that if Iraq asked U.S. forces to leave and it was not done cordially, "we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

Iraqi lawmakers on January 5 passed a resolution that said the country’s government “commits to revoke its request for assistance from the international coalition fighting [the Islamic State (IS) extremist group] due to the end of military operations in Iraq and the achievement of victory."

The government of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi “must work to end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, airspace, or water for any reason," they added.

The United States has some 5,000 military personnel in Iraq, mainly as advisers.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said more Iranian leaders will be targeted if Tehran avenges the killing of Soleimani.

Speaking on numerous television news shows over the weekend, Pompeo said if Iran uses its proxy forces -- in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and elsewhere -- to strike U.S. targets, a response won't be limited to them.

“They will be borne by Iran and its leadership itself,” Pompeo said. "Those are important things the Iranian leadership needs to put in its calculus as it makes its next decision.”

Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the foreign arm of Iran’s hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was killed on January 3 as he left Baghdad’s airport in a convoy amid a regional tour.

The attack marked a significant escalation between Iran and the United States, with Tehran promising “harsh revenge.”

In a series of January 4 tweets, President Donald Trump said he had ordered the strike on Soleimani because the Iranian commander had organized attacks on U.S. and Iraqi targets and that he was “preparing for additional hits in other locations.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the killing of Soleimani was a breach of international law and that any targeting of cultural sites would constitute a war crime.

"Those masquerading as diplomats and those who shamelessly sat to identify Iranian cultural & civilian targets should not even bother to open a law dictionary," Zarif wrote in a January 5 tweet. "Jus cogens refers to peremptory norms of international law, i.e. international red lines. That is, a big(ly) 'no no'."

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, AFP, The New York Times, and AP