Trump threatens attacks on 52 sites if Iran retaliates for Soleimani killing

Trump tweeted the targets "WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD" if Iran retaliates for the killing of Qassem Soleimani.

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By Dennis Romero and Yuliya Talmazan

President Donald Trump on Saturday warned Iran that if it retaliates for the killing of one of its top leaders, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, it will face U.S. attacks on 52 targets, a number he said was symbolic.

The president tweeted that the number of targets matched the number of hostages held by Iran in 1979, when 52 American diplomats and citizens were held for 444 days.

"Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have.........targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some 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," he said. "The USA wants no more threats!"

Trump's tweet was vaguely worded, but the United Nations Security Council appears to suggest the targeting of cultural heritage sites is prohibited.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded earlier, accusing Trump of threatening a "war crime" and breaching the norms of international law.

"That is, a big(ly) "no no"," he said.

Trump added in further tweets that "They attacked us, & we hit back. If they attack again, which I would strongly advise them not to do, we will hit them harder than they have ever been hit before!"

Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Sunday night, he returned to the subject of Iranian heritage sites, saying, "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."

A tide of mourners welcomed Soleimani's body home Sunday as thousands packed the streets of the Iranian cities of Ahvaz and Mashhad to pay tribute to the general.

The U.S.-led international coalition against ISIS said Sunday it had paused training and support of Iraqi security forces due to repeated rocket attacks on bases housing its troops.

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Iran's state television announced that the country was ending its commitment to limit enrichment of uranium as part of the 2015 deal with world powers that eased crippling economic sanctions in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear development

Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal last May, leaving it in tatters as other foreign leaders attempted to keep the deal alive. The decision to renege on the agreement has led to months of escalated tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

Trump has said the attack was undertaken to prevent war and further bloodshed for Americans who had been targeted by Soleimani in future operations.

"We took action last night to stop a war," he said in a televised address to the nation. "We did not take action to start a war."

But the White House has yet to offer the public proof that the general's plans were significantly out of line with his history of directing Iran's proxy wars and covert operations, which have indeed cost American lives.

The White House blamed violent protests earlier this week at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on the general.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts tweeted that Trump was "threatening to commit war crimes."

"We are not a war with Iran," she wrote. "The American People do not want a war with Iran. This is a democracy. You do not get to start a war with Iran, and your threats put our troops and diplomats at greater risk. Stop."

Some congressional leaders, including U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, have said Americans deserve to see the evidence behind the targeting of Soleimani.

Two senior Capitol sources told NBC News that Congress on Saturday received formal White House notification of the attack.

Such documentation, which the sources said was classified, is required by law.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said in a statement Saturday night that the notification was insufficient.

“This classified War Powers Act notification delivered to Congress raises more questions than it answers," she said. "This document prompts serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the Administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran."

She said the White House's lack of transparency on the Soleimani attack was concerning.

"The highly unusual decision to classify this document in its entirety compounds our many concerns, and suggests that the Congress and the American people are being left in the dark about our national security," Pelosi said.

The speaker called on the Trump administration to brief Congress on its plans for Iran.

Meanwhile a spokesman for the U.S. Government Publishing Office said the website of its Federal Depository Library Program was hacked Saturday night, and that authorities were investigating.

Although officials have not said who is responsible for the hack, a group purporting to be Iranian hackers claimed responsibility.

"An intrusion was detected on GPO’s FDLP website, which has been taken down," GPO spokesman Gary Somerset said in a statement. "GPO’s other sites are fully operational. We are coordinating with the appropriate authorities to investigate further."

The White House and the FBI declined to comment on the hacking.

Leigh Ann Caldwell, Alex Moe, Sally Bronston, Doha Madani and Reuters contributed.