(Recasts with plans to plead guilty on lesser charges)
By Kelly Twedell
FORT BRAGG, N.C., March 5 (Reuters) - A U.S. Army general facing a rare court-martial of an officer of his high rank will plead guilty on Thursday to charges that he engaged in inappropriate relationships with several junior female soldiers, his defense lawyers said.
But Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair maintains he is innocent of the most serious charges against him, that he twice forced oral sex during an adulterous affair he admits to having with a captain assigned to his unit in Afghanistan.
Sinclair's attorneys announced his plans late Wednesday to plead guilty to a number of the criminal charges he faces. Opening statements in the trial at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, were due to begin on Thursday morning.
The 51-year-old married father of two will admit he committed adultery, a crime in the military, by having sex during a three-year affair with an unmarried captain 17 years his junior, the defense said.
He also exhibited conduct unbecoming an officer by eliciting nude photos from a female major, exchanging sexually explicit communications with another female captain and possessing pornography in Afghanistan, according to his lawyers.
Possession of pornography on deployment violates military law. The array of allegations led to the decorated general's removal from command in southern Afghanistan in 2012.
Sinclair's team said they will continue to fight charges that he sexually assaulted the captain with whom he admits to having an affair while in two war zones, in Germany and back home in the United States.
The general says he never used his superior rank to prevent the woman from ending their sexual relationship, nor did he threaten to kill her or her family if she exposed the affair. The defense has raised questions about the reliability of the key accuser's statements under oath.
Sinclair could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of the sex charges. The crimes for which he will plead guilty typically result in fines and retirement at a reduced rank, his lawyers said.
Lead defense attorney Richard Scheff said Sinclair was taking responsibility for "shortcomings" that he had long acknowledged. He delayed pleading guilty to some of the lesser charges for tactical reasons, the attorney said.
"The government now has a big problem," said Scheff, a civilian lawyer. "The prosecution team no longer gets to distract us with salacious details about acts that aren't even criminal in the civilian world."
Asked for comment about the planned guilty pleas, a Fort Bragg spokesman said, "The government intends to allow the trial to take place in the courtroom."
The plea will have to be approved by the trial judge, Colonel James Pohl.
In court on Wednesday, prosecutors said their evidence included 8,500 pornographic images and 600 videos found on four devices used by Sinclair.
Pohl said military lawyers could not use the pornographic images to prove intent or motive by Sinclair on the separate sexual assault charges. A prosecutor said there were "stark similarities" between the images and sex crimes of which Sinclair is accused.
The judge on Tuesday denied a defense motion to dismiss the charges against Sinclair after a daylong hearing focused on whether top military leaders improperly influenced the case due to political pressure to crack down on sex crimes in the U.S. armed forces.
Sinclair's lawyers said the lead prosecutor who resigned just weeks before the trial wanted to abandon the sexual assault charges because of concerns about the key accuser's credibility. But military officers said the prosecutor, while grappling with severe emotional distress from personal issues as well as the case, did not doubt the underlying allegations.
Five two-star generals chosen as jurors will decide whether Sinclair is guilty of the remaining charges, which also include allegations that he misused his government credit card for personal purposes and referred to female staff officers using derogatory language.
The jurors, who all rank higher than Sinclair, a one-star general, traveled from several states and Korea to take part in the court-martial. (Reporting by Kelly Twedell; Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Dan Grebler, Bernard Orr)