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Prison for officer's effort to foil attack?

A U.S. army colonel who allegedly frightened an Iraqi into disclosing details of an impending attack by firing a pistol near his head, faces up to eight years in prison on assault charges.

Army officials have given Lt. Col. Allen B. West of the Fourth Infantry Division a choice – a court martial or resign early, losing retirement benefits. The 19-year veteran says he will reach his 20-year retirement this Saturday.

The Army says West’s aggressive interrogation method constitutes an assault under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

West’s Army defenders say they are in an intense battle with Saddam Hussein loyalists in the Sunni Triangle near Tikrit where one false move could be their last.

The Aug. 21 incident came amid fears of an impending sniper attack on U.S. forces and reports of an assassination plot aimed at West, an artillery battalion commander.

West told the Washington Times in an e-mail he interrogated an Iraqi policeman who, according to an informer, was involved in attacks on U.S. forces. Fearing a new attack, West said he took charge of the interrogation, determined to pry information from the policeman and warning his subordinates “it could get ugly.”

“I did not want to expose my soldiers to a possible attack,” he said in the e-mail.

West said two of his soldiers did “physically aggress” the policeman but failed to get any information. Finally, he threatened the Iraqi with his 9 mm pistol, firing twice.

“Once I fired into the weapons clearing barrel outside the facility alone, and the next time I did it while having his head close to the barrel,” West wrote. “I stood in between the firing and his person. I admit that what I did was not right, but it was done with the concern of the safety of my soldiers and myself.”

After informing his superior officer of the incident, West said he heard nothing more until a broader inquiry was launched by army chiefs, the Times said.

The Washington paper reported today West’s friends and colleagues are rallying around him.

“He’s getting a bum rap,” retired Army Col. Mike Kryschtal told the Times.

“Al West is an outstanding officer,” said Kryschtal, who served with West in South Korea in 1995 and 1996. “His actions were consistent with his selfless dedication to duty and the welfare of his soldiers. The fact that he reported this incident speaks to his integrity. He should be commended, not persecuted, for saving the lives of our soldiers.”

Retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, who recently visited 4th Infantry soldiers in a tour of Iraq, told the Times he suspects West has a lot of sympathy from fellow combatants and among families of soldiers in the U.S.

“The difficulty that the 4th ID faces is that the enemy is wearing civilian clothes and hiding behind women and children,” he said. “So when you ask a battalion and company commanders to stop the violence against the Iraqi people and against soldiers, the pressure to use aggressive interrogation techniques seems to be reasonable.”

In an e-mail to the Times yesterday, West said, “I really wanted to stay hidden but that is no longer possible. I am now at a critical decision point to resign. I cannot afford to be sent to jail and my daughters never see their daddy again. My family is all I have now.”

Col. West’s wife, Angela, who lives in Fort Hood, Texas, has retained an attorney in North Carolina.

“This is very distressing,” she told the London Telegraph.