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Officer fights chargesafter protecting troops

A U.S. army officer who allegedly frightened an Iraqi into disclosing details of an impending attack by firing a pistol near his head has decided to face a trial on assault charges rather than resign.

Prosecutors gave Lt. Col. Allen B. West of the Army’s Fourth Infantry Division a choice – a court martial or resign early, losing retirement benefits. The 19-year veteran is scheduled to reach his 20-year retirement today.

West told the Washington Times in an e-mail he was desperate to gain information to protect his soldiers who face almost daily attacks in their effort to impose security in Tikrit, where Saddam Hussein loyalists are fighting back.

“I have never denied what happened and have always been brutally honest,” West said. “I accept responsibility for the episode, but my intent was to scare this individual and keep my soldiers out of a potential ambush. There were no further attacks from that town. We further apprehended two other conspirators (a third fled town) and found out one of the conspirators was the father of a man we had detained for his Saddam Fedeyeen affiliation.”

The Iraqi West interrogated is a policeman. He said the man “and his accomplices were a threat to our soldiers and the method was not right, but why should I lose 20 years of service or be forced into prison for protecting my men?”

Attorney Neal Puckett, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, told the Times he will travel to Iraq next week to investigate the case then defend West at an investigative hearing Nov. 10 in Kirkuk.

If prosecutors present enough evidence of wrongdoing, West could be court-martialed and sentenced up to eight years in prison.

The staff judge advocate for the 4th Infantry Division has charged him under the Uniform Military Code with communicating a threat and aggravated assault.

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.

In a previous e-mail to the Times, West said while interrogating the Iraqi policeman he “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. 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.

If West were to take the option of quitting, he would lose more than $1 million in pay and health benefits over his life expectancy, the Washington paper said.

Puckett said West could choose a “nonjudicial punishment,” allowing him to retire with benefits. He would have to appear before division commander Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who likely is the one who approved the “quit or court-martial” offer, according to the attorney.

The Times said West has offered to resign at the lower rank of major so he can collect retirement benefits.

Military advocates argue West’s difficult circumstances should be taken into account, noting the U.S. soldiers must adhere to strict standards as they fight terrorists who blend in to the populace with no regard for rules of warfare.

“Excuse me while I go to look up Marquis of Queensberry,” Elaine Donnelly, head of the Center for Military Readiness told the Times.”No wonder we haven’t gotten any information on Hussein’s present location from all of those ‘deck of cards’ people we have captured. Has the Army lost its institutional mind? Or maybe they have forgotten that a state of war exists in Iraq.”

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