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Explained: How attacking cultural sites goes against international law

Click to play video 'Pompeo defends U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani: ‘We will reduce risk’' Pompeo defends U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani: ‘We will reduce risk’
WATCH: Pompeo defends U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani: ‘We will reduce risk’

Apparently contradicting Donald Trump, the U.S. Secretary of State says the country will act in accordance with the law when it comes to Iran.

“We’ll behave lawfully,” Mike Pompeo said on ABC’s This Week. “We’ll behave inside the system.”

Pompeo’s comments come after the U.S. president tweeted Saturday that the U.S. would target 52 Iranian sites should Tehran retaliate for the killing of Quds Force general Qassem Soleimani.

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Trump described some of those targets as “very high level” and important to Iran and its culture.

“Those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!”

But an expert says carrying out a military attack on such targets would constitute a war crime.

READ MORE: ‘Billion dollar questions’ — How is Iran likely to respond to Soleimani’s killing?

“Under international law it’s forbidden to target cultural centres unless they’re actually being used to direct military activities, for example,” said Leah West, a lecturer at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

As for the claim that the U.S. has established targets on sites of special importance to Iranians, she suspects that amounts to hyperbole from Trump.

Click to play video 'Expert discusses legalities behind Trump targeting cultural sites in Iran' Expert discusses legalities behind Trump targeting cultural sites in Iran
Expert discusses legalities behind Trump targeting cultural sites in Iran

“Targeting processes are very regimented,” she said. “They would be guided by officials, lawyers from the military and elsewhere within the United States establishment who would understand the legalities of the targeting process.”

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The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict  says “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind.”

In 2016, the International Criminal Court found Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, a member of an Islamist militia, guilty of a war crime for directing attacks on historic and religious monuments in Mali.

As well, attacks by the Islamic State group and other armed factions in Syria and Iraq prompted a 2017 resolution at the United Nations Security Council condemning the destruction of heritage sites.

Iran previously vowed “harsh” retaliation for the death of Soleimani, who was killed in a drone strike on Friday in Iraq that was ordered by Trump.

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On Sunday, Iranian cabinet minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi called Trump a “terrorist in a suit.”

“He will learn history very soon that NOBODY can defeat ‘the Great Iranian Nation & Culture’,” he said.

READ MORE: Trump says U.S. will target 52 Iranian sites should Tehran retaliate

Soleimani was an extremely powerful military and political figure in Iran who was responsible for orchestrating proxy wars outside the country.

The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including the elite Quds Force that Soleimani led, is designated a terrorist group in the U.S.

The State Department says the Iranian military “has the greatest role among Iran’s actors in directing and carrying out a global terrorist campaign.”

Click to play video 'Trump says Qassem Soleimani’s execution ‘a warning to terrorists’' Trump says Qassem Soleimani’s execution ‘a warning to terrorists’
Trump says Qassem Soleimani’s execution ‘a warning to terrorists’

Trump, who described Soleimani as the No. 1 terrorist “anywhere in the world,” says he was responsible for scores of U.S. deaths and was killed to thwart an active plot to claim more lives.

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The attack prompted calls from world leaders for de-escalation to prevent a possible war.

On the Sunday political talk show circuit, Pompeo backed Trump in saying that the U.S. could take further action against Iran if the country retaliates for Soleimani’s death.

–With files from Abigail Bimman, Global News, and The Associated Press