FORT LEWIS, Wash. --A court-martial started here yesterday against an Army officer who refused to serve in Iraq last summer because, he has said, the war is illegal.
The officer, 1st Lt. Ehren K. Watada, was charged in July with missing a movement and conduct unbecoming an officer after he refused to join the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry when it was deployed. Watada gave interviews and made public comments denouncing the war.
Watada has said the Bush administration has falsely used the Sept. 11 attacks to justify the war. He has said that the war has been proved unjust because weapons of mass destruction have not been found in Iraq and that U.S. soldiers have mistreated Iraqis.
Many enlisted soldiers have faced discipline for refusing to serve in Iraq. Watada is the first officer to refuse publicly. If convicted on all counts, he could be sentenced to four years in prison and be dishonorably discharged.
The case has become a rallying point for antiwar groups, and scores of Watada's supporters waved signs yesterday outside Fort Lewis.
The judge, Lt. Col. John Head, reinforced yesterday an earlier ruling that Watada could not base his defense on his contention that the war is illegal.
Watada has pleaded not guilty, but has not disputed that he missed the deployment or that he commented against the war.
"From what I understand, under military law those in the military are allowed to refuse - in fact, have the right to refuse unlawful orders - a duty to refuse," Watada said last month at a forum featuring war opponents, according to a transcript distributed yesterday by Zoltan Grossman, a professor at Evergreen State College who helped organize the forum.
In the transcript, Watada said that being denied the chance to argue the legality of the war in his court-martial is "a violation of our most sacred premises of due process and, indeed, is un-American."
"We will fight it," he said. "I will always flight. We will try to appeal to the highest court."
Watada, 28, of Honolulu, asked to go to Afghanistan instead of Iraq but was denied. He also tried to resign but was denied. He has been working in an administrative office here.
Army prosecutors and a defense lawyer, Eric Seitz, interviewed potential jurors yesterday drawn from a pool of officers on the post. Opening arguments could begin today.