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US Pentagon at odds with Trump over striking Iran cultural sites 

Anti-war activists hold banners during a protest organised by 'CodePink' in front of the White House following the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani by a US airstrike in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, on January 4, 2020 in Washington, United States [Yasin Öztürk / Anadolu Agency]
Anti-war activists hold banners during a protest in front of the White House following the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani by a US air strike in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, on 4 January 2020 in Washington, US [Yasin Öztürk/Anadolu Agency]

The US Pentagon has ruled out striking Iranian cultural sites and distanced itself from Donald Trump’s threat against Tehran. The American president followed up the assassination of Commander of the Iran’s elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, with a pledge to strike 52 Iranian sites if Iran retaliated.

Trump’s inclusion of Iranian cultural sites on his target list sparked outrage as any such attack would amount to war crimes under international law. Some compared the threat to the destructive rampage of Daesh. The terrorist group became notorious for destroying cultural and world heritage sites.

After initially declining to comment on the 52 targets and referring questions to the White House, the Pentagon has stepped in to douse the global outcry. Defence Secretary Mark T Esper acknowledged that striking cultural sites with no military value would be a war crime, a view that put him at odds with the president who insists that such places would be legitimate targets.

Despite the condemnations, Trump doubled down on his threat during the weekend and sought to offer a justification in a statement to the press on board Air Force Once. “They’re allowed to kill our people,” Trump said, according to a pool report. “They’re 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 site? It doesn’t work that way.”

Esper was asked if cultural sites would be targeted as the president had suggested over the weekend. “We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” said the defence secretary during a news briefing at the Pentagon. Asked if that was because the laws of war prohibit targeting cultural sites, Esper agreed and said “that’s the laws of armed conflict.”

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