THE HAGUE, Netherlands - Prosecutors say Thomas Lubanga is a Congolese warlord whose militias plucked children off the streets as they walked to and from school and forced them to fight and die in a brutal rebel conflict.

His lawyer says he is an innocent patriot who sought to end plundering of resources and bring peace to his mineral-rich region.

Today, judges will decide whether Lubanga becomes the first war-crimes suspect to stand trial before the International Criminal Court, the world's first permanent war-crimes tribunal.

"We believe it will be approved, and then we're going to have a trial in the second part of 2007," the Hague-based court's top prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said in a recent interview.

Lubanga faces three charges of recruiting and using child soldiers in a conflict in the Ituri region of eastern Congo in 2002 and 2003. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if sent to trial and convicted.

Lubanga was arrested in March 2005 by authorities in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, as part of a crackdown aimed at restoring order to Ituri after the slaying and mutilation of nine U.N. peacekeepers there. A rival warlord has been arrested in Congo and charged in the peacekeepers' killings.

Lubanga is the only suspect in the custody of the ICC, which was formally established in 2002 to prosecute suspects believed most responsible for atrocities around the world.

He also is the first person to be charged at an international court with using child soldiers. Prosecutors intend the case to send a message around the world that arming and using children to wage wars will not be tolerated.

The United Nations estimates that about 300,000 child soldiers are involved in conflicts around the world.

"Using child soldiers is an international crime," Moreno-Ocampo said. "We will enforce it."