Latest Update, via ABC News:

An Army general in Iraq backed away from his threat today to court martial female soldiers who get pregnant.

"I see absolutely no circumstance where I would punish a female soldier by court martial for a violation ... none," Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo III wrote to ABC News in an exclusive statement. " I fully intend to handle these cases through lesser disciplinary action."

Cucolo triggered debate, some of it angry, when his Nov. 4 policy forbidding pregnancy among his soldiers became public recently. His policy statement said violation of the rule could be punishable by court martial, and that it would also apply to the men who get female soldiers pregnant, even if the couple is married.

While legal and military experts said the order was proper, a spokeswoman for the National Organization for Women called it "ridiculous."

"How dare any government say we're going to impose any kind of punishment on women for getting pregnant," NOW President Terry O'Neill said. "This is not the 1800s."

Update from Stars and Stripes:

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Seven U.S. soldiers, including three men, have already been punished under six-week-old rules making pregnancy a violation of military law in northern Iraq...

Though any violation of the ban, which applies only to troops under Cucolo’s command, could theoretically be punished by court-martial and jail time, he said disciplinary actions are being handled at a lower level.

The ban is part of General Order No. 1, which also bars U.S. troops and civilians attached to the military from consuming alcohol and possessing pornography, though not from having sex.

The four soldiers who became pregnant were given letters of reprimand that will not remain a part of the permanent military file, Cucolo said, as were two of the male soldiers.

The third male soldier, a noncommissioned officer who is married and impregnated a subordinate who is not his wife, was also charged with fraternization and given a permanent letter of reprimand, Cucolo said.

Read more on the update here. Raw's earlier story follows.

The commander of US forces in northern Iraq is defending his decision to place criminal penalties on soldiers who become pregnant or impregnate another soldier, saying he "needs every one" of his soldiers to complete his mission.

In a largely overlooked move last month, Maj.-Gen. Anthony Cucolo III issued an order making it a punishable offense for a soldier or civilian attached to the armed forces to become pregnant during their tour of duty. The punishment can include a court-martial followed by jail time, and applies both to the person who got pregnant and to the person who did the impregnating. The policy even applies to married couples.

The news has stirred criticism in some corners since the military newspaper Stars & Stripes reported on the new policy on Saturday.

Eugene Fiddell, professor of military law at Yale University, told Stars & Stripes the policy appeared designed to prevent the loss of personnel in the field, but it opened "a mare’s nest of legal, ethical and policy issues" because it goes "the core of personal autonomy: reproductive rights."

Fiddell also noted the policy could place the burden of punishment more with female soldiers than with male, as the male could only be punished if the female soldier reveals who impregnated her.

Maj.-Gen. Cucolo told BBC News that this was a "black and white" matter of retaining soldiers in the combat zone.

"I've got a mission to do, I'm given a finite number of soldiers with which to do it and I need every one of them," he told the news service. "So I'm going to take every measure I can to keep them all strong, fit and with me for the twelve months we are in the combat zone," he said.

The BBC reports that this marks the first time the US military has made pregnancy a punishable offense.

The new policy, which went into effect Nov. 4, is especially problematic for supporters of women's rights and reproductive rights, who note that the armed forces have long been a gray area when it comes to those issues. Kathryn Joyce recently reported at Religion Dispatches:

For military women, who lack all rights to medical privacy, facing an unplanned pregnancy is a daunting obstacle. Thanks to anti-abortion forces in Congress, military hospitals are banned from providing abortion services, except in cases of life endangerment, rape, or incest (and for the latter two, only if the patient pays for the service herself).

Amanda Terkel at ThinkProgress reports that "it's unclear what will happen to a woman who is raped and becomes pregnant. She would technically be eligible for jailtime, but if she is unable to identify her attacker(s), they may go free."

Terkel notes that the US military received nearly 3,000 reports of rape in the year ending September, 2008.

Stars & Stripes reports:

The rule governs all those serving under Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo III, who commands Multi-National Division-North, including Balad, Kirkuk, Tikrit, Mosul and Samarra. According to the order, it is “applicable to all United States military personnel, and to all civilians, serving with, employed by, or accompanying” the military in northern Iraq, with few exceptions.

[Army spokesman Maj. Lee] Peters said that, despite the broad wording of the policy, it is meant to apply only when pregnancies affect a unit’s ability to perform its mission.

No one has been punished or accused under the new policy, according to Col. David S. Thompson, the inspector general for all soldiers in Iraq.