WASHINGTON - The U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and President Donald Trump's subsequent threat to bomb Iran's "cultural" sites if it retaliates touched personal nerves for many members of Congress who are veterans of the Iraq War.
Soleimani headed Iran's elite Quds Force, which is responsible for killing roughly 600 U.S. soldiers during the Iraq War mainly through unconventional tactics such as roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices, the State Department reported last year.
Trump has said such violence should justify the U.S. targeting Iranian cultural sites, which could constitute war crimes under international law.
As Trump dug in on his position - though contradicted by his secretaries of defense and of state -Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Iraq War veteran, urged that the U.S. military must follow international rules of war and uphold the country's ideals and not stoop to the moral level of the people it's fighting.
Gallego, an Arizona Democrat, recalled his inner conflict as a combat Marine in Iraq over a desire to "exact revenge" on the locals he was patrolling after his best friend was killed by an improvised explosive device in 2005.
"For months I patrolled among Iraqis I knew there were insurgents in the towns (and) the crowds. I felt their eyes when I patrolled through the markets. I was filled with rage when they took my best friend. Did I want to exact my revenge on all of them? I did," Gallego wrote in a series of tweets.
But he resisted those urges, he wrote, because he did not want the blood of "innocent humans" on his hands or to discredit U.S. soldiers who had served "honorably" before him.
"This is what (Trump) doesn't understand. He isn't just threatening the lives of millions of Iranians. He is destroying our national honor" by threatening to violate international norms, Gallego wrote.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both contradicted the president's contention that the Pentagon was targeting such sites.
"We will follow the laws of armed conflict," Esper told CNN.
"Every action we take will be consistent with the international rule of law," Pompeo told reporters Tuesday.
Trump tweeted Saturday that the Pentagon had put together a list of 52 targets - one for each of the Americans held during the 1979-1980 hostage crisis - including ones "important to Iran & the Iranian culture" that the U.S. would strike if Iran responded aggressively to the drone strike assassination of Soleimani last Friday. On Sunday, the president doubled down on those threats in comments to reporters aboard Air Force One.
"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," Trump said. "And we're not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn't work that way."
While Gallego and other Democrats who are Iraq War veterans rebuked the president for insisting he might strike cultural targets, Republicans who served in Iraq mostly downplayed Trump's threat as rhetorical hyperbole or declined to address it.
"I don't buy for a minute that he would really strike strictly a cultural target. ... And the military wouldn't do it," said Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican who deployed to Iraq as an Air Force officer four times in the 2000s.
"This is President Trump telling Iran to think of your next step carefully, because if you strike back, we will kick your ass," Bacon said.
Bacon's good friend was one of the 600 members of the military who was killed at the hands of Soleimani's forces, he told CQ Roll Call, and added that the Iranian general's death was "long overdue."
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who served in the Army in Iraq, said in a statement Monday that Trump is "fully justified in striking (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) targets in response to Iran's repeated, deadly attacks on Americans."
Cotton's office declined to specify whether or not those "justified" targets include sites of cultural significance that Trump alluded to.
Other Republicans, however, directly challenged Trump's strategy for deterring Iranian counterattacks.
"Any U.S. strike should focus on military - not civilian - targets and comply with the 1954 Hague Convention on Cultural Objects During Armed Conflict," said GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, referring to the international agreement that intentionally destroying cultural landmarks and heritage sites constitutes war crimes.
"Our goal here should be to drive a wedge between the Iraqi people and the Iranian regime, as well as between the Iranian people and their own evil regime," said Gallagher, another Iraq War veteran.
Even if Trump does not follow through on his threats to target Iranian cultural sites, his stated willingness to commit war crimes has already damaged U.S. national security, Democrats and Middle East experts argued.
Iran has blasted Trump's threats to millions of viewers and listeners over the last several days from state-run television and radio channels. Multiple Iranian officials have retweeted Trump's post Saturday announcing the targeting of cultural sites.
"It matters what the president of the United States says," said Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, a former U.S. Army Ranger who led a platoon during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"People listen to it. It sets the tone. It creates expectations at home and abroad. Our enemies use those words against us in their own propaganda," Crow said.
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