Douglass K. Daniel and Jonathan Lemire
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — President Donald Trump issued a stark warning to Iran on Saturday, threatening to hit dozens of targets in the Islamic Republic "very fast and very hard" if it retaliates for the targeted killing of the head of Iran's elite Quds Force.
The series of tweets came as the White House sent to Congress a formal notification under the War Powers Act of the drone strike on Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a senior administration official said. U.S. law required notification within 48 hours of the introduction of American forces into an armed conflict or a situation that could lead to war.
The notification was classified and it was not known if a public version would be released. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the classified document "suggests Congress and the American people are being left in the dark about our national security."
In unusually specific language, Trump tweeted that his administration had already targeted 52 Iranian sites, "some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture." He linked the number of sites to the number of hostages, also 52, held by Iran for nearly 15 months after protesters overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.
Thousands of Iranians lined Baghdad streets Saturday for the funeral procession for Soleimani. The Islamic Republic has vowed revenge for the Trump-ordered airstrike that killed him and several senior Iraqi militants early Friday Baghdad time.
Trump appeared to respond to such threats with tweets justifying Soleimani's killing and matching the bellicose language from Iran.
"Iran is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets as revenge for our ridding the world of their terrorist leader who had just killed an American, & badly wounded many others, not to mention all of the people he had killed over his lifetime, including recently hundreds of Iranian protesters,"the president tweeted. "He was already attacking our Embassy, and preparing for additional hits in other locations. Iran has been nothing but problems for many years."
Trump also warned: "The USA wants no more threats!"
Trump's reference to targeting sites "important to Iran & the Iranian culture" could raise questions about whether striking such targets would violate international agreements. The American Red Cross notes on its website that the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their additional protocols, ratified by scores of nations in recent years, states that "cultural objects and places of worship" may not be attacked and outlaws "indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations."
The 1954 Hague Convention, of which the U.S. is a party, bars any military from “direct hostilities against cultural property." However, such sites can be targeted if they have been re-purposed and turned into a legitimate “military objective," according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Iran, home to 24 UNESCO World Heritage sites, has in the past reportedly guarded the sprawling tomb complex of the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, with surface-to-air missiles.
Iran calls threat a 'war crime'
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter Sunday that after committing "grave breaches" in the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Trump is threatening new breaches of international law.
Zarif wrote: "Targeting cultural sites is a WAR CRIME."
Telecommunications minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi compared Trump's threats to the Islamic State group, Adolf Hitler and Genghis Khan.
"They all hate cultures. Trump is a 'terrorist in a suit'," Jahromi wrote on Twitter, warning that nobody can defeat Iran.
The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group says America's military in the Middle East region, including U.S. bases, warships and soldiers are fair targets and that evicting U.S. military forces from the region is now a priority.
The U.S. military, which recently killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani “will pay the price,” he added in a speech Sunday.
“The suicide attackers who forced the Americans to leave from our region in the past are still here and their numbers have increased,” Nasrallah added.
Pope Francis calls for dialogue and self-restraint
Pope Francis is calling for dialogue and self-restraint in his first public comments amid soaring tensions between the U.S. and Iran, after a U.S. airstrike killed Iran’s top general in Iraq.
During his Sunday noon blessing, Francis warned: “War brings only death and destruction.” He led the tens of thousands of faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square in a silent prayer for peace.
Speaking off the cuff, Francis said: “I call on all side to keep alive the flame of dialogue and self-control, and to avoid the shadows of enmity.”
Francis had hoped to visit Iraq this year to minister to the Christian minorities that have been targeted by the Islamic State group. Vatican officials and local Catholic bishops in Iraq have voiced concern about the impact of any new conflict on the weakest and most marginal in Iraq.
Back in Washington
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, campaigning in Iowa, questioned whether Trump was acting alone or with support of allies. "We have no idea – I have no idea – whether he has any plan at all," the former vice president told reporters Saturday night. "But when he makes statements like that, it just seems to me to be he's going off on a tweet storm on his own, and it's incredibly dangerous and irresponsible."
The notification document sent Saturday to congressional leadership, the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore was entirely classified, according to a senior Democratic aide and a congressional aide. The aides and the senior administration official were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and requested anonymity.
In a statement, Pelosi said the "highly unusual" decision to classify the document compounds concerns from Congress.
"This document prompts serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the Administration's decision to engage in hostilities against Iran," Pelosi said and reiterated her call for a full briefing for lawmakers.
Pelosi said the Trump administration's "provocative, escalatory and disproportionate military engagement continues to put servicemembers, diplomats and citizens of America and our allies in danger." She called on the administration "for an immediate, comprehensive briefing of the full Congress on military engagement related to Iran and next steps under consideration."
Protests across US condemn action in Iran and Iraq
WASHINGTON (AP) — Demonstrators in dozens of cities around the U.S. gathered Saturday to protest the Trump administration's killing of an Iranian general and decision to send thousands of additional soldiers to the Middle East.
More than 70 planned protests were organized by CODEPINK and Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, a U.S.-based anti-war coalition, along with other groups.
From Tampa to Philadelphia and San Francisco to New York, protesters carried signs and chanted anti-war slogans.
President Donald Trump ordered Friday's airstrike near Baghdad's international airport that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force who has been blamed for attacks on U.S. troops and American allies going back decades. Iran has vowed retribution, raising fears of an all-out war, but it's unclear how or when a response might come.
Protest organizers said the Trump administration has essentially started a war with Iran by assassinating Soleimani.
In Miami, nearly 50 protesters gathered. Drivers heard people shouting, "No more drone murders," "We want peace now" and "What do we want? Peace in Iran."
A few hundred demonstrators gathered in Times Square on Saturday chanting "No justice, no peace, U.S. out of the Middle East!"
"The United States is trying to use Iraq as a proxy war," said Russell Branca, 72, of Queens. "If the United States and Iran are going to fights it's not going to be in the United States and it's not going to be in Iran, it'll be in other places. And it's just crazy because none of this is necessary."
In Minneapolis, protesters gathered near the University of Minnesota holding signs and chanting. Among them was Meredith Aby, a longtime leader of the local Anti-War Committee.
"We need to be pulling out of Iraq, not sending thousands more troops. We need to be trying to cool things down with Iran, not pouring gasoline on a fire," Aby, 47, said.