US President Donald Trump on Saturday threatened to hit 52 Iranian sites “very hard” if Iran attacks Americans or US assets after a drone strike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader, as tens of thousands of people marched in Iraq to mourn their deaths.
Showing no signs of seeking to ease tensions raised by the strike he ordered that killed Soleimani and Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad airport on Friday, Trump issued a threat to Iran on Twitter. The strike has raised the specter of a wider conflict in the Middle East.
Iran, Trump wrote, “is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets” in revenge for Soleimani’s death. Trump said the United States has “targeted 52 Iranian sites” and that some were “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”
“The USA wants no more threats!” Trump said, adding that the 52 targets represented the 52 Americans who were held hostage in Iran for 444 days after being seized at the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 – an enduring sore spot in US-Iranian relations.
Trump did not identify the sites. The Pentagon referred questions about the matter to the White House, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Among the mourners in Iraq included many militiamen in uniform for whom Muhandis and Soleimani were heroes. They carried portraits of both men and plastered them on walls and armoured personnel carriers in the procession. Chants of “Death to America” and “No No Israel” rang out.
On Saturday evening, a rocket fell inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone near the US Embassy, another hit the nearby Jadriya neighbourhood and two more were fired at the Balad air base north of the city, but no one was killed, Iraq’s military said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Trump referenced an unusually specific number of potential Iranian targets after a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander had also mentioned a specific number of American targets – 35 of them – for possible retaliatory attacks in response to Soleimani’s killing.
General Gholamali Abuhamzeh was quoted by Tasnim news agency as saying late on Friday that Iran will punish Americans wherever they are within reach of the Islamic Republic and raised the prospect of attacks on ships in the Gulf.
“The Strait of Hormuz is a vital point for the West and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross there. Vital American targets in the region have been identified by Iran for a long time ago. Some 35 US targets in the region, as well as Tel Aviv, are within our reach,” he was quoted as saying.
Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah militia warned Iraqi security forces to stay away from US bases in Iraq, “by a distance not less than a thousand meters (six-tenths of a mile) starting Sunday evening,” reported Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV, which is close to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Trump said on Friday Soleimani had been plotting “imminent and sinister” attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. Democratic critics said the Republican president’s action was reckless and risked more bloodshed in a dangerous region.
Trump’s provocative Twitter posts came only hours after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter that he had told Iraq’s president that “the US remains committed to de-escalation.” Pompeo also wrote on Twitter that he had spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Iran and “underscored the importance of countering Iran’s malign influence and threats to the region.”
The White House on Saturday sent to the US Congress formal notification of the drone strike – as required by law – amid complaints from Democrats that Trump did not notify lawmakers or seek advance approval for the attack. White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien defended the operation’s legality and said Justice Department lawyers had signed off on the plan.