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Hezbollah militia boss dies in blast

Fingers point to Israel in an assassination that may raise tensions.

February 14, 2008|Ziad Haidar and Jeffrey Fleishman | Special to The Times

DAMASCUS, SYRIA — The assassination here of a senior Hezbollah militia leader, wanted by the U.S. in attacks over two decades, including the 1983 bombing that killed 241 American troops in Beirut, is likely to further aggravate tensions in Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East.

Hezbollah quickly accused Israel of plotting the assassination of Imad Mughniyah, 45, who they said died late Tuesday in a car bomb attack. Israel denied involvement, but the killing could have violent repercussions in Lebanon, where domestic political turmoil and Hezbollah's cross-border hostilities with the Jewish state have inflamed the region for years.

The death was a blow to Hezbollah's military wing, and Lebanon and Israel braced for a response from the Shiite militant group. The attack also raised questions about whether Syria might have carried out the killing to improve its relations with the West, or whether its sprawling intelligence network had been penetrated by outside plotters.

A mercurial figure occasionally seen in grainy black-and-white photographs, Mughniyah purportedly led Islamic Jihad during Lebanon's civil war in the 1980s. He had close ties to Iran and was indicted in the United States in the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner that resulted in the slaying of a U.S. Navy diver who was a passenger. He was suspected of having a role in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and barracks housing Marines and French peacekeepers in Beirut that killed about 350 people.

A master at concealing his identity, Mughniyah was believed to be one of the key security officials supervising Hezbollah's war against Israeli troops in the summer of 2006.

That conflict emboldened Hezbollah and patron Iran and further destabilized Lebanon. It also led to questions about whether Syria would continue meddling in Lebanese politics as it quietly attempted to ease its bellicose stand with Washington.

"The guy is a legend," said a ranking official in one Palestinian militant group with offices in Damascus, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He has been in hiding for at least 20 years. He has changed his appearance three times by having plastic surgery. Every time we met, he had to reintroduce himself to me."

Syria condemned the assassination, with Interior Minister Bassam Abdel Majeed reading a statement saying that "the investigation is underway to find the perpetrators." Syrian officials said Mughniyah, also known by the nom de guerre Haj Radwan, spent most of his time in Tehran.

Iran, a key Hezbollah ally believed to have regarded Mughniyah as a strategic asset for creating mischief in the region, blamed Israel, as did the radical Palestinian group Hamas, which vowed revenge.

The assassination of Mughniyah "is the result and another prominent example of organized state terrorism by the Zionist regime," Mohammed Ali Hosseini, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, told the official IRNA news agency.

"After a life filled with jihad, sacrifices and achievements . . . the leader Hajj Imad Mughniyah (Haj Radwan) was martyred by Israeli Zionists," Hezbollah said in its statement. The militant group said that Mughniyah, sought by the FBI with a $25-million bounty for his capture, had been an Israeli target for more than 20 years.

A statement released by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said, "Israel rejects the attempt by terrorist elements to ascribe to it any involvement whatsoever in this incident." Israeli security officials and military analysts, nonetheless, said they were thrilled by the news.

"We are all replaceable and Mughniyah too will be replaced, but this is undoubtedly a harsh blow to Hezbollah -- not only to morale but to the personal security," Danny Yatom, a member of the Knesset, or parliament, and former chief of the Mossad spy agency, told Israeli media. "Leaders will now understand that they are not immune. In addition, this deals a blow to Hezbollah capabilities, as it will take time for someone else to achieve the scope of his experience."

In Washington, the Bush administration applauded Mughniyah's killing, calling him one of the most dangerous terrorists and a cold-blooded killer who was responsible for many dozens of deaths.

"The world is a better place without this man in it," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "One way or another, he was brought to justice." During the 1980s and 1990s, Mughniyah had the aura of a terrorism strategist arranging strikes across an unstable Middle East. He was involved in the kidnappings of several Westerners in Lebanon, authorities say, and was wanted in the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. There also were allegations that his militant wing had a hand in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans.

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