Democrats will attempt to rein in U.S. President Donald Trump’s war-making powers as condemnation mounts of his threats to bomb Iranian cultural sites and impose sanctions on Iraq if it forces out U.S. troops.
As decision-makers in Washington struggled to navigate the fallout from Mr. Trump’s order last week to kill an Iranian general at the Baghdad airport, defence officials appeared to contradict each other on the future of U.S. troops in Iraq.
After the Iraqi parliament voted to expel the troops, the top U.S. commander in Iraq suggested on Monday in a letter that his forces would leave shortly. But Defence Secretary Mark Esper denied there are plans to pull out.
The White House has also begun drafting sanctions on Iraq in case Mr. Trump decides to make good on his threat, the Washington Post reported. The paper, citing unnamed sources, said the work was preliminary but that penalties could include a ban on American companies doing business with Iraqi ones.
In Tehran, Iran’s theocratic government staged a funeral and demonstration for General Qassem Soleimani, broadcasting images of crowds mourning him and praising him as a martyr.
The Democrats will introduce a motion in the House of Representatives this week that says that without explicit permission from Congress for further military action against Iran, Mr. Trump would have to stop all hostilities in 30 days. Such a motion would be unlikely to make it through the Republican-controlled Senate.
Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan congresswoman who was a Pentagon official during the Obama administration, is expected to sponsor the resolution. On Monday she said Mr. Trump’s order for the strike that killed Gen. Soleimani will help Iran expand its influence in Iraq.
“If the United States is kicked out, it gives the Iranian government a freer hand in Iraq,” she wrote on Twitter. “Ironically, [Gen. Soleimani’s] death may achieve precisely what he set out to do in life.”
Pulling the U.S. military out of the country, where about 5,000 troops lead a coalition against the Islamic State, would also reduce pressure on the terrorist group and could further destabilize one of the world’s most volatile regions.
Canada has about 500 Canadian soldiers in Iraq.
Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne’s office said on Monday that he spoke to his Iraqi counterpart, Mohamed Ali Alhakim, about Canada’s contributions there – and pledged to continue that aid.
“The minister reiterated Canada’s ongoing commitment to a stable and united Iraq and to ensuring the enduring defeat of [the Islamic State],” Mr. Champagne’s office said in a statement.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, asked if Canada supports the U.S. strikes that killed Gen. Soleimani, said Canada backs efforts to deter future attacks on its soldiers and those of its allies.
NATO’s top civilian leader said the military alliance is also standing fast in Iraq and signalled that member countries back the U.S.
“We are united in condemning Iran’s support of a variety of different terrorist groups,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said after an emergency meeting in Brussels. “At the meeting … allies called for restraint and de-escalation. A new conflict would be in no one’s interest. So Iran must refrain from further violence and provocations.”
Mr. Stoltenberg said NATO member-country troops intend to remain in Iraq and continue to help train Iraqi soldiers. He said training has been suspended because of the security situation but will resume it when possible.
The letter from U.S. Brigadier-General William Seely to Iraq’s Defence Ministry, obtained by Reuters and The Washington Post, suggested U.S. troops would soon pull out after the demand from Iraq’s parliament. “We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” wrote Brig.-Gen. Seely, commander of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State.
Mr. Esper swiftly contradicted him. “There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” he told reporters. “I don’t know what that letter is.” General Mark Milley, the U.S.’s top soldier, explained the document as a “poorly worded” draft.
Mr. Trump over the weekend said he would demand Iraq pay billions of dollars to the U.S. to compensate Washington for its military spending there. If Baghdad does not comply, he said, he would impose “very big sanctions” on the country. Such sanctions would be even more severe than current sanctions on Iran, Mr. Trump threatened, even though Iraq is a U.S. ally and Iran an adversary.
The President also twice said he was prepared to target Iranian cultural sites if Tehran retaliated for Gen. Soleimani’s death. Iran has more than 20 UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the ruins of Persepolis. The U.S. is a party to 1954 Hague Convention, which protects cultural relics during war.
The prospect of attacking cultural sites would put the U.S. in the company of the Islamic State, which destroyed much of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria in 2015.
“As much as your adversaries may choose to violate the law of armed conflict ... that’s not who the United States is. That’s not who the United States military is,” said Mara Karlin, a former high-ranking Defence Department official.
Even one of Mr. Trump’s Republican allies on Monday conceded such an act would be illegal.
“My understanding is that is not permitted under the law,” Senator John Cornyn said at the Capitol. “I don’t know if it was ever really seriously considered, or whether it’s just part of the rhetoric going back and forth.”
Still, Mr. Cornyn argued, Mr. Trump has the right to order military operations without consulting Congress.
Mr. Trump, for his part, defended the killing of Gen. Soleimani as a measure to scare Iran so that it will not attack U.S. forces in the Middle East. “We had a shot at him and we took him out and we’re a lot safer now,” Mr. Trump told radio host Rush Limbaugh.
But critics contend Iran will only escalate its proxy war against the U.S. as a result.
Prof. Karlin, now director of the strategic studies program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said Tehran’s retaliation may not be immediate. Between U.S. troops in the region, cyberwarfare and its nuclear program, Iran has several options.
“It’s really hard to imagine how this strike could bring the U.S. and Iran closer together,” she said. “It is inconceivable that the Iranians won’t need to do something.”
With reports from Steven Chase and Michelle Carbert in Ottawa