updated 12/3/2007 7:48:49 PM ET 2007-12-04T00:48:49

A court-martial opened Monday for a Marine accused of murdering an Iraqi soldier while the two men stood guard together in Fallujah. But the 22-year-old reservist says he acted in self-defense.

Lance Cpl. Delano Holmes of Indianapolis 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.

His court-martial started Monday with attorneys for both sides arguing motions over the use of photographs of the soldier's body as evidence and the use of statements taken from Iraqis as part of the investigation.

If convicted on all counts, Holmes faces life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.

The killing occurred in the predawn darkness after Hassin allegedly opened his cell phone, then lit a cigarette, said Holmes' attorney, Steve Cook.

Fight allegedly over phone, cigarette
The men were not supposed to display illuminated objects because of the danger 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. 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 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.

Soldier on first deployment
Holmes 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, Mich.

Outside the courtroom, Holmes' family told reporters they were still coming to terms with the allegations.

"We've had a lot harder feelings about the process than he has," said Jenni Crowley, who was a foster parent to Holmes as a teenager and is now trying to adopt the Marine.

She said Holmes, known as "Del" to friends, believes he will be exonerated.

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