US Allies Distance Themselves from Trump Decision to Assassinate Suleimani
The United States killed Iran's top general and architect of Tehran's proxy wars in the Middle East in an airstrike at Baghdad's international airport on Jan. 2, an attack that threatens to dramatically ratchet up tensions in the region.
US allies have distanced themselves from Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate Qassem Suleimani, as millions of Iranians took to the streets to mourn and demand revenge for the assassination of the country’s top general.
Both Israel and Nato stressed they were not involved in the airstrike on Thursday. The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has already expressed disappointment in the lukewarm reaction of Washington’s European allies.
But the response of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was particularly striking, as he has been one of Trump’s staunchest supporters on the world stage.
He told a meeting of his security cabinet on Monday: “The assassination of Suleimani isn’t an Israeli event but an American event. We were not involved and should not be dragged into it.”
The Saudi deputy defense minister, Khalid bin Salman, who is also the younger brother of the kingdom’s crown prince, was in Washington on Monday to urge restraint, joining a growing international chorus.
France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, insisted there was still time for diplomacy but warned that without urgent action to defuse rising tensions there was a real risk of a new Middle East war.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, who spoke to Pompeo on Monday, said that the region’s “cauldron of tensions is leading more and more countries to take unpredicted decisions with unpredictable consequences and a profound risk of miscalculation”.
Iran has threatened a severe response to the US killing of Suleimani by drone strike in Baghdad last week. Brig Gen Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of Iran’s aerospace division, said on Monday that the only appropriate response would be the “the complete destruction of America in the region”.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, continued to pour reinforcements into the region. US defense officials said the roughly 2,500-strong Marine force on board the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, equipped with Cobra helicopters and Harrier jets, would be sent to the Middle East from their current position in the Mediterranean. Three thousand airborne troops are already on the way to Kuwait.
The US marine reinforcements come at a time when the US military presence in Iraq is in question following a vote by the country’s parliament over the weekend to expel US troops.
Related: Iraq scales down threats to expel US forces after Trump reaction
Iraq’s caretaker prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, summoned the US ambassador, Matthew Tueller, and called on the two countries to cooperate in arranging the withdrawal of the roughly 5,000 US soldiers currently in Iraq on counter-Isis and training missions. However, Abdul-Mahdi did not give a deadline for the US departure.
Trump, who has previously called for a general US withdrawal from the region, has threatened to punish Iraq by imposing sanctions if the Baghdad government expels them.
“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” the president said.
Trump came under fire on Monday for his threat to strike Iranian culture sites among 52 targets that the US would bomb in reprisal for any future Iranian attack. The number, he explained, was the same as the number of Americans taken hostage when the US embassy in Tehran was seized after the Islamic revolution in 1979.
“I think that Iran has many military, strategic military sites that you may cite are also cultural sites,” Kellyanne Conway, a Trump adviser, told reporters on Monday, but clarified later she was not accusing Iran was camouflaging military targets as cultural sites.
Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, responded furiously to Trump’s threat.
“Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290,” Rouhani said, referring to the number of Iranians killed when a US warship accidentally shot down a civilian airliner, Iran Air 655, in 1988.
“Never threaten the Iranian nation,” Rouhani said.
Related: Here's what could be lost if Trump bombs Iran's cultural treasures | Sergio Beltrán-García
Trump was also under continued pressure from Democrats on Monday for the lack of transparency over his justification for the assassination of Suleimani, who commanded the elite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have claimed the general was plotting imminent attacks against US targets.
Abdul-Mahdi said the Iranian military leader had flown to Iraq to negotiate, and claimed Trump had asked the Iraqi government to mediate.
Trump did not consult Congress or US allies before ordering the strike in the early hours of the morning in Baghdad. On Saturday, the White House delivered a formal notification to Congress as required by the 1973 War Powers Act, but its contents were classified. Normally such notifications are public documents with a classified section if required.
The Democratic senators Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez wrote to Trump on Monday, demanding the war powers notification be declassified.
“We did not see anything here that he deemed required such a classification,” a Senate staffer said. “The War Powers act provision requiring the 48-hour notification was included partly for transparency purposes with the American people during these delicate moments. [It’s] pretty self-defeating to hide something meant to be transparent.”
Conway accused Schumer and Menendez of “chest-thumping” and said: “They know Congress will be briefed.”
The White House has suggested it will brief selected members of Congress this week, but Conway said the decision on timing was up to the Pentagon.
US allies in Europe and the Middle East have stressed that Suleimani had been a destabilizing and destructive presence in the region, but have largely stopped short of supporting Trump’s decision, calling for restraint on all sides.
The US briefed Nato ministers on Monday on the Suleimani killing. Speaking to journalists later the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, distanced the alliance from the operation.
“This is a US decision, it is not a decision taken by neither the global coalition nor Nato, but all allies are concerned about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, Iran’s support to different terrorist groups,” Stoltenberg said. He also confirmed the suspension of the Nato training mission in Iraq.
“In everything that we do, the safety of our personnel is paramount. As such, we have temporarily suspended our training on the ground,” the secretary general said.
The US-led counter-Isis in Iraq has also suspended operations, and redeployed its forces back from forward operating bases.
There is mounting concern that the more cautious stance by the US-led coalition would make it much less effective and allow Isis to regenerate.
“The bottom line is that there won’t be much counterterrorism going on in Iraq and Syria any time soon,” wrote Luke Hartig, former senior director for counter-terrorism on the national security council, now at the New America foundation. “Trump’s counter-terrorism legacy in Iraq and Syria may be a series of dead bodies but nothing that addresses the core of the problem and no partners willing to help us root it out.”