Trump says 52 targets already lined up if Iran retaliates

AP, Reuters, AFP-JIJI

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 held by Iran for nearly 15 months after protesters overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

Protesters took to the streets in Washington and other U.S. cities on Saturday to condemn the killing of Soleimani and Trump’s decision to send about 3,000 more troops to the Middle East.

“No justice, no peace. U.S. out of the Middle East,” hundreds of demonstrators chanted outside the White House before marching to the Trump International Hotel a few blocks away.

Similar protests were held in New York, Chicago and other cities. Organizers at Code Pink, a women-led anti-war group, said protests were scheduled on Saturday in numerous U.S. cities and towns.

Public opinion polls show Americans in general have been opposed to U.S. military interventions overseas. A survey last year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found 27 percent of Americans believe military interventions make the United States safer, and nearly half said they make the country less safe.

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 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. She reiterated her call for a full briefing for lawmakers.

Pelosi said the Trump administration’s “provocative, escalatory and disproportionate military engagement continues to put service members, 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.”

A hard-line pro-Iran faction in Iraq, Kataeb Hezbollah, urged Iraqis to stay clear of U.S. forces. The warning came as tens of thousands mourned Soleimani, whose death brought vows of “severe revenge” from Tehran.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Saturday, “Thugs are telling Iraqi security forces to abandon their duty to protect (the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad) and other locations where Americans work side by side with good Iraqi people.”

“The Iranian regime telling Iraq’s government what to do puts Iraqi patriots’ lives at risk. The Iraqi people want out from under the Iranian yoke; indeed, they recently burned an Iranian consulate to the ground,” he wrote, referencing the November sacking of the Iranian consulate in the southern city of Najaf by a protest movement angry at the government and its backers in Iran.

In its message, Kataeb Hezbollah, a faction of Hashed, asked security forces to get at least 1,000 meters away from U.S. bases starting on Sunday at 5 p.m. The deadline would coincide with a Parliament session on Sunday that the Hashed has insisted should see a vote on the ouster of U.S. troops.

In the first hints of a possible retaliatory response, two mortar rounds hit an area near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Saturday, while almost simultaneously two rockets slammed into the Al-Balad air base, where American troops are deployed, security sources said.

The Iraqi military confirmed the missile attacks in Baghdad and on al-Balad and said there were no casualties.

A group claiming to be hackers from Iran meanwhile breached the website of a little-known U.S. government agency on Saturday and posted messages vowing revenge for Soleimani.

The website of the Federal Depository Library Program was replaced with a page titled “Iranian Hackers!” that displayed images of Khamenei and the Iranian flag.

“Severe revenge awaits those criminals who have tainted their filthy hands with his blood and blood of the other martyrs,” it said. “This is only small part of Iran’s cyber ability!” another caption on the page read.