Lance Cpl. Delano Holmes, 21, is accused of stabbing Munther Jasem Muhammed Hassin to death as they stood watch at a security post on Dec. 31, 2006. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of unpremeditated murder and making a false statement. He says he acted in self-defense.
The killing occurred in the pre-dawn darkness after Hassin allegedly opened his cell phone, then lit a cigarette at the post, said Holmes' attorney, Steve Cook.
The men were not supposed to display illuminated objects because of the threat of sniper fire, and Holmes repeatedly tried to make Hassin extinguish the cigarette, Cook said.
Holmes maintains he knocked the cigarette out of the soldier's hand and the two got into a fight, falling to the ground. During the struggle, Holmes felt Hassin reaching for his loaded AK-47, so the Marine killed him with a knife, then radioed for help, Cook said.
He said Holmes, of Indianapolis, was charged with murder because of the political climate at the time, citing incidents at Haditha and Hamandia where Marines were accused of murdering civilians.
"The military was attempting to show ... they were going to treat seriously or crack down on any allegations against Marines," Cook said.
Cook, a former federal prosecutor in San Diego, said he expects to call 20 to 30 defense witnesses.
The court-martial is expected to last about two weeks, Marine spokesman Miquel Alvarez said. A jury was due to be selected Monday.
Holmes, who is being held in military detention at Camp Pendleton, California, enlisted in the Marine reserves in May 2004 and was on his first deployment in Iraq, Cook said. He is from the 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, based at Lansing, Michigan.