The military's case against seven Marines and a Navy corpsman charged with murdering an Iraqi man last spring began its first public airing Wednesday with pretrial hearings for two of the men.

At issue is whether the shooting of Hashim Ibrahim Awad, 52, in the village of Hamdania, west of Baghdad, was murder or a justifiable act of war.

Iraqi witnesses have told the military that the Marines and a sailor kidnapped Awad on April 26, bound his feet, dragged him from his home and shot him to death in a roadside hole.

Defense attorneys were expected to contend that Awad was trying to plant an explosive device when the men found him. They also question the credibility of the Iraqis who reported the incident to U.S. authorities. A conviction could mean the death penalty.

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The first hearing before an investigating officer Wednesday was for Pfc. John J. Jodka, 20, one of the defendants accused of firing on Awad.

A separate hearing then got under way forCpl. Marshall Magincalda, 23, who allegedly bound the man's feet and kidnapped him.

The hearings held under Article 32 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice are the functional equivalent of civilian preliminary or grand jury hearings, and will determine whether the men should be tried in a general court martial.

The Marines have the opportunity to mount a defense, call witnesses or even testify themselves. Their lawyers were expected to challenge prosecution use of the defendants' pretrial statements by contending they were subjected to heavy-handed inquiries with threats of the death penalty.

The other defendants are expected to have separate hearings in coming weeks.

The charges include kidnapping, murder and conspiracy.

Little about the case has been made public. According to charging documents, five of the troops are alleged to have shot Awad after kidnapping him from his home, but all eight are being charged with murder because prosecutors say those who didn't shoot were complicit in the killing.

The case may center on the troops' statements because, with eight defendants, it is likely at least one will cooperate with prosecutors in return for the charges being dropped or a reduced penalty, said Gary D. Solis, a former Marine Corps prosecutor and judge advocate who teaches law of war at Georgetown University Law Center.

"My understanding is there are so many statements out there, the web has been laid," Solis said.

The case might be a prelude to another trial, in which up to 12 Marines also based at Camp Pendleton may face murder charges in the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha in November. Several of those Marines have hired attorneys.