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Trump backs off threat to attack Iranian cultural sites

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Tuesday backed away from his threats to target Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliates against the U.S. for killing one of its top generals.

Targeting cultural sites is a war crime.

After first tweeting the threat and later reiterating it to reporters as he flew back to Washington over the weekend, Trump retreated Tuesday, saying, “I like to obey the law.”

But he still sounded offended by the idea that such sites would be off limits during armed conflict.

“Think of it,” Trump said during an Oval Office appearance. “They kill our people. They blow up our people. And then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions?”

Trump added: “But I’m OK with it. It’s OK with me.” He then issued yet another stern warning to Iran to stand down, saying, “If Iran does anything they shouldn’t be doing, they are going to be suffering the consequences, and very strongly.”

On Monday, Defense Secretary Mike Esper had distanced the Pentagon from Trump’s threats to bomb Iranian cultural sites despite international prohibitions on such activity.

Esper said the U.S. will “follow the laws of armed conflict.” Asked if that ruled out targeting cultural sites, Esper pointedly added, “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”

It all began over the weekend when Trump tweeted Saturday that if Iran attacked any American assets to avenge the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the U.S. had 52 targets across the Islamic Republic that “WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

He added that some are “important to Iran & Iranian culture.”

Anger spread quickly across Iran, and Trump repeated the threat to reporters traveling with him as he flew back to Washington on Sunday after spending two weeks at his Florida resort.

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran escalated sharply after Trump ordered a drone strike in Iraq that killed Soleimani, head of Iran’s powerful Quds Force. The U.S. has said Soleimani was killed because he was making plans to attack American diplomats and service members in the Middle East.

Targeting cultural sites is a war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention for their protection. Separately, in 2017, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the destruction of heritage sites. Attacks by the Islamic State group and other armed factions in Syria and Iraq prompted that vote.

UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, has called on governments to remember that cultural sites are not targets.

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