BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A U.S. commander in northern Iraq does not expect to order a court martial for soldiers who become pregnant, but has not rolled back a controversial new policy on pregnancy, a military spokesman said on Wednesday.
A new directive from Major General Tony Cucolo, who commands U.S. soldiers in northern Iraq, sets out possible punishments from reprimand to court martial for prohibited behavior, including drinking alcohol, taking drugs or becoming pregnant.
The policy has been criticized by some women's advocates and on Tuesday four U.S. senators wrote to the secretary of the U.S. Army on Tuesday asking that it be rescinded.
"We can think of no greater deterrent to women contemplating a military career than the image of a pregnant woman being severely punished simply for conceiving a child," Senator Barbara Boxer and others wrote.
Cucolo defended the rules, which took effect for his 22,000 soldiers when he took over in northern Iraq in November, as necessary to retain combat power as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011.
Cucolo's command includes some of the most dangerous areas of Iraq, where ethnic and sectarian rivalries have fueled an ongoing insurgency.
Military spokesman Major Jeff Allen said Cucolo, who personally decides what punishment soldiers violating rules will receive, had clarified that he did not intend to court martial any of his soldiers who became pregnant.
"I have not ever considered court-martial for this. I do not ever see myself putting a soldier in jail for this," Cucolo said in a conference call on Tuesday with reporters.
Yet Allen said that Cucolo, contrary to what some media reports had implied, had not changed his stance. Becoming pregnant remains on the list of prohibited behavior that could result in a variety of punishments including criminal charges.
Four of Cucolo's soldiers who were found to be pregnant since the November 4 order took effect had received letters of reprimand, Allen said. Three male soldiers involved were also reprimanded, and one of them received a more serious reprimand because he had committed adultery.
"The fact that the soldiers received letters of reprimand does not represent a change in policy, and no changes have been made to the directive," he said.
The policy applies only to soldiers under Cucolo's command. U.S. Central Command rules do not prohibit "sexual contact between consenting, single servicemembers," but individual commanders can issue rules that are stricter than that.
"That is what Major General Cucolo had done in this case; he has taken a policy and made it stricter to meet his desire to send a message to our soldiers on this issue," Allen said.
(Reporting by Missy Ryan; editing by Myra MacDonald)