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Army charges officer for refusing to fight in Iraq

By Daisuke Wakabayashi
Reuters
Wednesday, July 5, 2006; 8:28 PM

SEATTLE (Reuters) - The U.S. Army filed three charges on Wednesday against an officer who refused to fight in Iraq due to objections over the legality of the war.

First Lt. Ehren Watada, who supporters say is the first commissioned U.S. officer to publicly refuse to serve in Iraq and face a military court, remained at Fort Lewis base in Washington state when his unit shipped out to Iraq on June 22.

Watada called the war and U.S. occupation of Iraq "illegal" and said participation would make him a party to war crimes.

In a statement, the Army said it had charged Watada, 28, with missing movement, contempt toward officials and conduct unbecoming an officer.

"Officers are held to a high moral and legal standard. Acts contrary to this standard may be tried by court-martial," said the Army statement.

If found guilty of all charges, Watada could face several years in confinement, dishonorable discharge and forfeiture of pay, according to the Army. The missing movement charge carries the heaviest punishment of confinement of up to two years.

Watada's lawyer said he expected the missing movement charge, but was somewhat surprised by the decision to charge the officer with contempt toward officials and conduct unbecoming an officer, because it raises free speech issues.

"What he said about the war and the way the war began and the misrepresentations by the Bush administration are all true. Not only does he have a right to make those statements, he has an obligation to make those statements," said Eric Seitz, Watada's Honolulu-based attorney.

"The reasons why they are going after him for the things he said is because they want to muzzle him," Seitz said.

Watada's objection to the war sparked rallies in support and protest near Fort Lewis, Seattle and in other U.S. cities.

Watada, who had said he did not apply for conscientious objector status because he isn't against war in general, now faces a pre-trial investigation and will continue to work at the base, Army officials said.

He first attempted to resign in protest over the war in January, but the Army refused to accept his resignation, according to his supporters. Watada has said he would be willing to serve in Afghanistan, but not Iraq.

© 2006 Reuters