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Originally published Friday, January 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Lawyers: Does Watada's motive matter?

At a hearing Thursday at Fort Lewis, there was little dispute about the action taken by 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, who last June refused to deploy...

Seattle Times staff reporter

FORT LEWIS — At a hearing Thursday at Fort Lewis, there was little dispute about the action taken by 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, who last June refused to deploy with his brigade to Iraq.

But defense and prosecutors sparred much of the afternoon about whether Watada's motives for opting out of the war should affect the outcome of a February court-martial trial that could result in a six-year prison term.

Watada says he believes the war is illegal and he was duty-bound not to fight. The defense seeks to introduce evidence to prove that belief.

Prosecutors said such arguments should never be raised at the trial, where Watada's guilt or innocence will be determined by a panel of officers.

"We have 130,000-140,000 soldiers over there right now," said Capt. Dan Kuecker. "There is no rational doubt in this situation; ... it's a lawful order."

Within the next week, military Judge Lt. Col. John Head is expected to issue a written decision on whether to hold a special hearing on evidence about the U.S. conduct of the war. At Thursday's hearing, he appeared troubled by the prospect of putting the war on trial in his courtroom.

"Where do I have the authority, and where is the case law that gives me the authority to discuss — to consider — whether the war in Iraq, or any war for that matter, is lawful?" Head asked.

Watada also faces charges of conduct unbecoming an officer, with prosecutors citing four public statements he made in speeches and interviews.

In those statements, Watada attacked the Bush administration's handling of the war, accused the military of war crimes and said an illegal war could be stopped by soldiers who choose to stop fighting.

Defense attorneys said Watada's statements reflected constitutionally protected free speech and urged Head to drop those charges, which extend the risk of his prison time from a maximum of two years, for missing a troop movement to Iraq, to six years.

Prosecutors said that U.S. Supreme Court decisions have defined limits to the free speech of military personnel and argued that Watada's remarks pushed beyond those limits and were offensive to the military.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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