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Army probes marriages to Iraqis

2 nuptials point out gray areas of U.S. presence

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Army is investigating whether two U.S. soldiers who married Iraqi women were in dereliction of duty when they held their short wedding ceremonies last month.

The men, serving in combat duty in Iraq with a National Guard unit from Pensacola, Fla., married Iraqis they said they had fallen in love with in the months since Baghdad was taken by U.S. forces on April 9.

Their difficult romance, opposed by some of the men's superiors and also anti-American Iraqis, highlighted the gray areas of the American presence in Iraq, where soldiers work amid some Iraqis as allies while fighting others.

The women, both English-speaking medical doctors, have asked not to be identified because they fear harassment from other Iraqis.

An Army spokesman, asking to remain anonymous, said last week that the two men, Sgt. Sean Blackwell, 27, and Cpl. Brett Dagen, 37, were being investigated by superior officers who could either impose their own punishment, such as confinement to barracks, fines, transfer or demotion, or refer the case to a court martial.

He said the investigation centered on whether they abandoned their comrades and their duties to hold the wedding service. Amid the current dangers of Baghdad, he said, they could be "in dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy."

In a recent e-mail to Cox Newspapers, Blackwell said the investigation was just an attempt at retaliation by commanders who opposed his marriage.

An Army spokesman, Capt. Jack McClellan, said last month that the marriage violated an order against fraternization and could jeopardize unit security. But the other spokesman last week said there is no general policy against fraternization or marriage to locals and that the guardsmen are being investigated concerning their presence at the wedding ceremonies itself.

During the soldiers' courtship, which took place often in long talks at gates and guardhouses of Army posts in Baghdad, the two men converted to Islam in an Iraqi court in order to clear the way for marriage.

The soldiers then arranged to meet their brides-to-be along a route that the men said they and other guardsmen were patrolling, allowing them to hold the weddings in a dual service on Aug. 17.

An Iraqi judge was brought to a restaurant where the two men arrived on foot in uniform and armed. In under a half-hour, they sat through their wedding vows. A reporter was present at the wedding, and Blackwell said the wedding stop was similar to stops other soldiers make to buy groceries or drinks while on patrol.

He said in recent e-mail to Cox Newspapers that a charge of dereliction was a "stretch" to punish him for the marriage.

He said before the nuptials he had solicited and received supportive advice about the wedding from an Army lawyer and an official in the Army's inspector general's office.