Jan 7, 2020 - World

The Trump administration's mixed messages on the Soleimani strike

Pomeo, Esper and Milley conduct a briefing from Mar-a-Lago. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

In the five days since the U.S. stunned the world by killing Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, top officials and the president himself have shared varying pictures of why that decision was made — and what they plan to do next.

Why it matters: Those mixed messages have generated doubt among Americans and allies over the "imminent threat" Soleimani posed, outrage in Tehran over Trump's threat of war crimes, and confusion in Baghdad about a possible U.S. withdrawal.

The "imminent threat"

How it started: In confirming the U.S. had killed Soleimani, the Pentagon said the general was "actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region."

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo subsequently emphasized both the severity and the urgency of those plans, saying attacks were "imminent."

But he and other officials have spoken only in the most general of terms about what Soleimani was targeting (not to mention where or when) — or whether they even know those answers with any specificity.

  • Pompeo and Trump have more recently emphasized Soleimani's past actions as evidence he was a threat. "If you're looking for imminence," Pompeo said today, "look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Soleimani."

The latest: Trump this afternoon cited "stops" Soleimani made around the region before he was killed as a sign that "they were planning something."

  • He said members of Congress, and potentially the public, would be hearing more details soon.
Targeting "the Iranian culture"

How it started: With Iran contemplating retaliatory action, Trump tweeted that "if Iran strikes any Americans or American assets," the U.S. was prepared to target 52 sites, some of great importance to "the Iranian culture."

  • Asked Sunday why Trump would commit what would clearly be war crimes under the Geneva Conventions, Pompeo insisted the U.S. would only consider "lawful targets."

But Trump doubled down that night: “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 site? It doesn’t work that way.”

  • However, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper ruled out strikes on cultural targets the next day, noting that striking them would violate "the laws of armed conflict."

The latest: Trump seemed to walk his threat back when asked about it Tuesday afternoon, telling reporters that "if that's what the law says, I like to obey the law."

Moving "out of Iraq"

How it started: Marine Corps Brig. Gen. William Seely, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, wrote a letter Monday to the Iraqi military notifying them that the anti-ISIS coalition would be "repositioning forces" and preparing to move "out of Iraq" in the coming days and weeks.

  • That came a day after the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for the expulsion of U.S. forces because the U.S. had violated Iraq's sovereignty by killing Soleimani on its soil.
  • The letter's publication set off a frenzy, and Esper and Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Mark Milley scrambled to deny the U.S. was withdrawing. The letter, they said, was just a "poorly worded draft" that should not have been released.

But Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said he received the letter, which was also translated into Arabic, and considered it the official U.S. position.

  • The process through which the letter was drafted and sent remains unclear.

The latest: Esper reiterated today that the U.S. has no plans to withdraw. He wouldn't say whether the U.S. would pull out if Iraq were to formally revoke the invitation on which the U.S. presence is based.

  • Trump, who has threatened to punish Iraq if it pushes the U.S. out, added that while the U.S. would “eventually" like to see Iraq "run its own affairs ... this isn't the right point."

Go deeper: Ripples from Soleimani strike will be felt for years to come.

Go deeper