Adam Ash

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Monday, February 05, 2007

The court-martial begins of the only US officer brave enough to refuse to go and fight in Iraq

Convictions v. conviction: Watada's court-martial begins
Opponents, supporters of Army officer face off
By MIKE BARBER AND KERY MURAKAMI/Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Inside Fort Lewis, a 4,000-member Stryker Brigade is continuing final training preparations for early deployment to Iraq this spring under President Bush's troop surge.

Outside the Army post, a surge of anti-war demonstrators from across the country is gathering in peaceful support of a military officer who refuses to go to Iraq.

Fort Lewis this week will become ground zero for the peace movement. Activists have called for a national day of action today, when the court-martial of 28-year-old 1st Lt. Ehren Watada begins.

In the past year, Watada has become a lightning rod for the anti-war movement as the only known U.S. military officer to publicly refuse to be sent to Iraq. Peace groups and such celebrity activists as Susan Sarandon and Martin Sheen have taken up the lieutenant's cause.

Watada has stated that the war in Iraq is illegal and that he is duty-bound as an officer under international and military conventions to refuse unlawful orders. But his views against the war will mean little at his court-martial. A judge already has ruled that Watada cannot question the war's legality as a defense.

If convicted of one count of missing movement with his Stryker Brigade to Iraq in June and two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer for public statements he made opposing the war, Watada could face a maximum prison term of four years and dismissal from the service.

The court-martial, slated to begin at 9 a.m., is open to the public but limited by capacity. Those who wish to attend must report to Fort Lewis' main gate processing center with appropriate identification and sign off on protocols, such as carrying no political signs, pins or other paraphernalia.

Fort Lewis has set up a court overflow room to be shared by the public and the media. Once full, however, no more will be admitted. Space is tight -- only seven media seats are reserved for the courtroom itself, available by a random drawing.

This morning is expected to be consumed mainly with the military justice system's equivalent of jury selection. Lawyers for each side will question potential jurors, selecting a minimum of five to sit on the panel, but possibly more.

The panel will be responsible for determining guilt or innocence and, if guilty, a sentence.

In the lead-up to his court-martial, Watada has made several public appearances, speaking to school, church and peace groups. Watada, who has been free to leave the base, also has been visible in the national media and has granted numerous interviews.

Today, groups supporting and opposing him will face off outside the base.

Operation Support Our Troops expects to counter Watada supporters with rallies from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today on Exit 122 off Interstate 5. The bridge, festooned with yellow ribbons and red, white and blue streamers, is named "Freedom Bridge" for the group's longtime rallies supporting the military and the troops.

Watada's supporters say they also support troops, but do so by wanting them out of Iraq. They expect to gather in force for a peaceful demonstration today at Exit 119, where they have held peace vigils in the past.

Sunday, both sides rallied to the cause.

"Look. Look at all the people waving and honking," said Jordan Haines, a retired Air Force veteran who was on the overpass at Exit 122, waving back at motorists with his hand and flag.

Sentiment there was nearly unanimous that Watada had chosen to join the military knowing he might be called on to go to war and that, as the Army contends, he was betraying his fellow soldiers by refusing to fight.

"How does the guy who took his place (in Iraq) feel?" Haines asked. "We don't hear from them because they're over there."

In an artist's studio in downtown Tacoma, about 20 anti-war protesters were rehearsing a piece of street theater they were planning to perform at the gates of Fort Lewis.

David Solnit, 43, an artist who came from Oakland, Calif., to help make giant puppets for the rally, said the U.S. had not accepted the excuse of Nazi soldiers that "they were just following orders." In Solnit's eyes, Watada was "following one of the better democratic traditions of the U.S." in refusing to fight.

David Gilmore, 62, a retired librarian who was among the performers, said of Watada's actions that the demonstrators on the off-ramp "don't understand the concept of heroism if they think that's cowardice."

The court-martial convenes against a backdrop of noticeable preparations on the post to send more soldiers to the war under Bush's recent decision to increase U.S. forces in Iraq. The 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division has been ordered to Iraq two months earlier than expected.

Its time in Iraq will overlap with Watada's outfit, the 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which left Fort Lewis in June.

With its tighter timeline, the 4th Brigade could not undergo advanced training and certification at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., near Death Valley. The Army instead brought soldiers trained to play opposing forces into Fort Lewis for training.

While Watada is being judged in court, the entire post around him will be used to prepare for the Stryker Brigade's deployment.

Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada
Age: 28
Hometown: Honolulu
One count of missing movement with his unit to Iraq; two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer.
If convicted on all three counts, Watada could be imprisoned for four years and dismissed from the Army.

Information about Lt. Ehren Watada's case and efforts by his supporters is at: and .
A 65-page "citizens panel" report by Watada's supporters is available as a 31-MB PDF file at Video and links to audio clips are on the Web site: Information about rallies by Operation Support Our Troops to counter those by Watada's supporters is available at
P-I reporter Mike Barber can be reached at 206-448-8018 or .


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