Pentagon chief says US will 'follow the laws of armed conflict' after Trump's Iran threats

Pentagon chief says US will 'follow the laws of armed conflict' after Trump's Iran threats
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Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Embattled Pentagon policy nominee withdraws, gets appointment to deputy policy job | Marines, sailor killed in California training accident identified | Governors call for extension of funding for Guard's coronavirus response Democrats demand Esper explicitly ban Confederate flag and allow Pride, Native Nations flags Trump's revenge — pulling troops from Germany — will be costly MORE on Monday indicated that the U.S. would not launch attacks on Iranian cultural sites, breaking with President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE's threat to target those sites if Iranian-backed forces initiated strikes on Americans or U.S. assets. 

“We will follow the laws of armed conflict," Esper told Pentagon reporters when asked if he would be willing to target Iranian cultural sites, according to Reuters

When asked whether his response meant that targeting such sites would be a war crime, Esper responded, “That’s the laws of armed conflict.” He did not expand on his position or Trump's threats against Tehran.

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Over the weekend, Trump repeatedly threatened to target Iranian cultural heritage sites should the nation's forces forces wage an attack on U.S. civilians or military targets in the Middle East. Trump made the threats amid the fallout from his order to launch an airstrike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, one of the most powerful officials in Iran and the leader of its elite Quds Force. 

The attack could have far-reaching consequences in the Middle East and has been met with a vow of retaliation from Iranian officials. In response, Trump tweeted on Saturday that the U.S. military has targeted 52 Iranian sites, including cultural ones, that it would strike should an attack on Americans occur. 

He doubled down on the threat a day later while dismissing criticism from human rights organizations and legal experts who say such an attack would amount to a war crime. 

"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. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way," Trump said. 

Deliberately targeting a cultural site is a war crime, according to the 1954 Hague Convention and international law.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamObama announces first wave of 2020 endorsements Trump putting TikTok ban on hold for 45 days: report This week: Negotiators hunt for coronavirus deal as August break looms MORE (R-S.C.), a top Trump ally in Washington, said Monday that he had communicated concerns to Trump about his threats in a phone call. 

"Cultural sites, religious sites are not lawful targets under the law of war unless they've been weaponized by the enemy," Graham said. "Putting cultural sites on the table as a military target, I think, undercuts what we're trying to do."