WASHINGTON — President Trump on Sunday evening doubled down on his claim that he would target Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliated for the targeted killing of one of its top generals, and threatened “very big sanctions” on Iraq if American troops are forced to leave the country.
Aboard Air Force One on his way back from his holiday trip to Florida, Mr. Trump reiterated to reporters the spirit of a Twitter post on Saturday, when he said the United States government had identified 52 sites for retaliation against Iran if there were a response to Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani’s death. Some, he tweeted, were of “cultural” significance.
Such a move could be considered a war crime under international laws, but Mr. Trump said Sunday that he was undeterred.
“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,” the president said. “And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”
The remarks came just hours after the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, walked back Mr. Trump’s tweets and said that whatever was done in any military engagement with Iran would be within the bounds of the law.
Mr. Trump also sounded fatalistic about the possibility of an Iranian escalation.
“If it happens, it happens,” he said. “If they do anything, there will be major retaliation”
As the president spoke, six advisers crowded to the side of Mr. Trump’s desk in the cabin, near the doorway: Robert O’Brien, his national security adviser; Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser; Ivanka Trump, his daughter and senior adviser; Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff; Hogan Gidley, a deputy press secretary; and Dan Scavino, the White House social media director. The president had a football game on the television affixed to the wall.
Mr. Trump also vowed to impose sanctions on Iraq if a move to evict American military personnel from the country takes place, a possibility heightened by the Iraqi Parliament’s passage Sunday of a measure to expel foreign troops in response to the killing of General Suleimani. That strike took place in Iraq, in a move that officials saw as violating the country’s sovereignty.
“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there,” Mr. Trump said of Iraq. “It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.”
Mr. Trump then escalated his language, saying: “If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
“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,” Mr. Trump added.
In making his warning, the president was threatening sanctions on a country for forcing out American troops whom he himself had pledged to bring home during his 2016 presidential campaign.
The threat also underscored the growing fallout from the president’s decision regarding General Suleimani.
The president said in tweets and in a statement on Friday about the strike that General Suleimani’s “reign of terror” was over, and he spoke about the hundreds of deaths for which the commander was responsible.
Officials have said the United States was retaliating against Iran, first for the death of an American contractor, and then for attacks at the American Embassy in Iraq led by pro-Iranian forces.
Officials have also said they had intelligence that General Suleimani was involved in planning “imminent” attacks on American interests in other countries, a statement that some government officials have questioned.
Mr. Trump told reporters that he might discuss making some of the intelligence available to a skeptical public nearly 17 years after the war in Iraq began on the basis of intelligence that proved not to be credible.
Mr. Trump also insisted he had been personally tracking General Suleimani for about 18 months. “He was leading his country down a very bad, dangerous path,” he said.
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