Wednesday, June 7, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Officer at Fort Lewis calls Iraq war illegal, refuses order to go

Seattle Times staff reporter

In a rare case of officer dissent, a Fort Lewis Army lieutenant has refused orders to head out to Iraq this month to lead troops in what he believes is an illegal war of occupation.

1st Lt. Ehren Watada was scheduled to make his first deployment to Iraq this month. His refusal to accompany the Stryker brigade troops puts him at risk of court martial and years of prison time.

"I feel that we have been lied to and betrayed by this administration," Watada said Tuesday in a telephone interview from Fort Lewis. "It is the duty, the obligation of every soldier, and specifically the officers, to evaluate the legality, the truth behind every order — including the order to go to war."

In a statement released today, Watada said the "war in Iraq violates our democratic system of checks and balances.

"It usurps international treaties and conventions that by virtue of the Constitution become American law. The wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of the Iraqi people with only limited accountability is not only a terrible moral injustice, but a contradiction to the Army's own Law of Land Warfare. My participation would make me party to war crimes."

In making his decision, Watada has reached out to peace groups, including clergy, students, some veterans opposed to Iraq and others. Some war critics are raising money for his legal defense as they seek to galvanize broader opposition to Bush administration policy in Iraq.

"There has been an outpouring of support in the Puget Sound area," said David Solnit, who works with the anti-war group Courage to Resist. The group and others are helping organize a press conference today in Tacoma to launch the support campaign.

Watada met over the weekend with Olympia peace activists, and had hoped to attend the press conference. But after a Tuesday meeting with an Army colonel, he was given written orders not to attend during duty hours between 6:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Instead, he expects to offer a video statement.

Watada's actions also may become a lightning rod for others in the debate about the Iraq war.

"He has an obligation to fulfill, and it is not up to the individual officer to decide when he is going to deploy or not deploy," said Jerry Newberry, a Vietnam veteran and director of communications for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "Some other officer will have to go in his place. He needs to think about that."

Watada, a member of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, is unsure what charges he might face. But he is concerned that his decision to go public will cause the Army to pile on numerous offenses, such as disobeying an order, missing a troop movement and unauthorized absence.

"I think they will do their best to make an example of me," Watada said.

Though some U.S. commissioned officers refused to deploy in the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War, it is unclear how many — if any — have balked at deployment in the Iraq war. Pentagon officials said they had no such statistics available.

A Fort Lewis spokesman, Joe Hitt, also had no knowledge of any other commissioned officer refusing to deploy. He declined to comment on Watada.

Among the enlisted ranks at Fort Lewis, Sgt. Kevin Benderman is serving a 15-month sentence at a base correctional facility for refusing a second tour of duty in Iraq. Benderman, an Army mechanic for 10 years, served in Iraq in 2003 but refused to board a plane for a return trip in January 2005.

There is also a much broader category of military personnel who for a wide range of reasons have not fulfilled their service obligations.

Since the beginning of the war, more than 7,900 members of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force have deserted, a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands who have served. Pentagon statistics indicate that desertions have declined as the war has progressed. They dropped from 3,678 in 2003, the first year of the war, to about 2,000 in 2005. The desertions typically involve enlisted personnel, not officers.

Watada has not deserted, since he remains on post in Fort Lewis.

Watada, 28, is a native of Hawaii, and an Eagle Scout who graduated from Hawaii Pacific University with a finance degree.

His father — Robert Watada, a retired Hawaii state official — was opposed to the war in Vietnam, and was able to do alternative service in the Peace Corps in Peru.

And Robert Watada said he laid out the "pros and cons" of military service as his son considered joining the service in the spring of 2003 as the invasion of Iraq was launched.

"He knew very well of my decision not to go to Vietnam, and he had to make his own decision to join the Army," Robert Watada said. "It was very noble. He felt like he wanted to do his part for his country."

After the younger Watada enlisted, he was sent to officer-training school in Georgia. Watada said he supported the war at that time because he believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

"I had my doubts," he said. "But I felt like the president is our leader, and he won't betray our trust, and he would know what he was talking about, and let's give him the benefit of the doubt." Over the past year, his feeling changed as he read up on the war and became convinced that there was "intentional manipulation of intelligence" by the Bush administration.

In January, Watada told his commanders that he believed that the war was unlawful, and therefore, so were his deployment orders. He did not, however, consider himself a conscientious objector, since he was willing to fight in wars that were justified, legal and in defense of the nation.

Watada was told that he could submit his resignation, but that the Army would recommend disapproval. That resignation was rejected in May, he said.

In a court-martial proceeding, Watada, who has retained civilian counsel, said he would try to mount a case about the legality of the war under international law and American law. But he is aware that a military court might not allow him to make that case.

Peace activists say they hope more military personnel will refuse to go war.

"We plan a national campaign to try to make sure that he is not punished for what he is doing," Solnit said.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581.

Seattle Times reporter Alex Fryer contributed to this story.

Information in this article, originally published June 7, 2006, was corrected June 7, 2006. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that this was the Stryker brigade's first deployment to Iraq. The brigade has been to Iraq once before, but this would be 1st Lt. Ehren Watada's first tour in Iraq.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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