WASHINGTON – Anti-war groups are trying to rally active troops to speak out against the war in Iraq — a political tactic they hope will sway voters Nov. 7.
A small group of active-duty members opposed to the war created a Web site last month intended to collect thousands of signatures of other service members. People can submit their name, rank and duty station if they support statements denouncing the U.S. invasion.
The electronic grievances are then passed along to members of Congress, according to the Web site.
"Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home," the Web site says.
Jonathan Hutto, a Navy seaman based in Norfolk, Va., who set up the Web site a month ago, said the group has collected 118 names and is trying to verify that they are legitimate service members.
There are 1.4 million troops on active duty, including members of the National Guard and Reserve.
Retired veterans have long waded into politics, including the 2004 presidential campaign when a group of veterans challenged Sen. John Kerry's war record. More recently, several retired military generals have called on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign, contending he botched the war and put troops at risk.
Hearing publicly from active-duty troops is rare. Military laws bar officers from denouncing the president and other U.S. leaders, and regulations typically prevent service members from lobbying for a particular cause while on duty or wearing the uniform.
Legal experts who reviewed the Web site said the effort probably would not violate any rules because the site is not a personal attack on members of the administration and allows service members to quietly pass their grievance to Congress in their free time.
Backers of the Web site also cite a "whistleblower protection" law as added protection. Under the law, service members can file complaints to Congress without reprisal.
But at least two senators — both critical of the administration's handling of the war in Iraq — said they were concerned that service members speaking out against the president may undermine the military's apolitical status.
"We expect our soldiers to follow ... the legitimate orders of their commanders," said Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who is helping lead Democratic opposition to the war this election season.
"And if you feel a course of action is inappropriate, your choice is just getting out of the service, basically, if you can and making your comments as a civilian," said Reed, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger and paratrooper.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a reserve judge for the Air Force, said vocal complaints by active-duty members represented a "disturbing trend" that threatened to erode the cohesiveness of the military.
"We've had a long tradition making sure the military doesn't engage in political debate," said Graham, R-S.C. "We don't need a Democratic Army and a Republican Army," he added.
Hutto and supporters of his Web site said they see no problem with active-duty military personnel weighing into politics.
"We're doing this on our own time," Hutto said. Also, "We're speaking as American citizens," rather than service members.
Scott Silliman, director of Duke University's Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, said he sees the increasing political noise being made from military members — active and retired — as a relatively new phenomenon resulting from an increasingly unpopular war.
"Fifteen, 20 years ago you wouldn't have seen it happen," Silliman said.
Still, Silliman said, he sees little wrong with troops speaking out on their own time so long as they are not senior-ranking officers needed to carry out the president's orders. "It depends certainly on who it is" ramping up opposition to the executive branch, he said.
A Pentagon press officer did not respond to requests for comment left by telephone and e-mail.