(CNSNews.com) - Imad Mughniyah is being hailed as a martyr in Lebanon, where Shi'ites and Sunnis have set aside their political differences to blame Israel for the top Hizballah terrorist's death. Iran's state media accused the U.S. of involvement in the killing.
Mughniyah, who is blamed for a decades-long terror spree from Beirut to Buenos Aires, died when his car exploded in Damascus, Syria, late Tuesday.
Israel denied carrying out the attack but was widely condemned.
"Almighty Allah has chosen [Mughniyah] to be a martyr on the hands of His Prophet's killers [the Jews] who know that we have a long battle with them," Hizballah said in a statement.
Prominent Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Afif Nabulsi said Mughniyah's death would give Hizballah "great momentum to continue the path of jihad."
The Amal militia, Hizballah's Shi'ite ally, called on Lebanese to unite against the "main enemy," Israel.
Top Sunni figures also joined the condemnation. Cleric Fathi Yakan issued a statement urging Hizballah to "deal a painful blow to the Zionist entity."
Even Hizballah's political rivals, including U.S.-backed Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former prime minister Rafik Hariri, and the anti-Syrian March 14 group, offered condolences to Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
Hizballah and the anti-Syrian coalition are locked in a bitter power struggle. Lebanon has been without a president since November, and more than a dozen attempts to hold a session of parliament to elect a new head of state have failed.
Terrorist groups outside of Lebanon lined up to condemn the killing and threaten revenge. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri calling it a "new example of Zionist gangsterism."
"The Zionist murderers and their agents should know that the resistance will respond by aiming its bullets and its explosives at the leaders of Zionist terrorism and their agents," the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command PFLP-GC said in a statement.
"The stamp of the criminal is on this cowardly operation, for which he will personally pay a heavy price," said Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, referring to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
The Palestinian Legislative Council, dominated by Hamas since 2006 elections, said Mughniyah's killing was further "proof that Israel is persistent to continue its violations [of] the basic principles of human rights."
Further afield, the secretariat of an umbrella group of 100 political parties across the Arab world also decried the killing.
During his long and violent career, Mughniyah acted in close cooperation with Iran, and on Wednesday, Tehran made no effort to distance itself from him.
"The record of Mughniyah's campaigns against occupier countries is a golden page in the history of fights against the occupier Zionists," said the Iranian Students News Agency, citing Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini.
Husseini said the "martyrdom" was a clear sign of Israeli state terrorism, and called for international efforts to prevent the recurrence of such "heinous crimes."
Tehran's official news agency IRNA said it was "likely" that the U.S. helped Israeli agents to assassinate Mughniyah.
Noting that the U.S. Embassy in Beirut earlier this week advised American nationals in Lebanon to keep a low profile on February 13-14, IRNA said this was "an indication that preparation was afoot for the terrorist attack on Mughniyah."
In fact, the embassy warden's message, issued on Monday, cited Thursday's third anniversary of Hariri's assassination and plans for a massive memorial rally in central Beirut. The embassy would be closed Thursday as a result, it said.
Iran's state-funded Press TV said it was "not difficult to realize who benefits from the crime," pointing to "Zionist" threats against Hizballah as well as Mughniyah's designation by the U.S. as a "most wanted" terrorist.
"The assassination was a joint macabre U.S.-Israeli play performed by Israeli spy agencies and their mercenaries to punish Hizballah for reviving the spirit of resistance across the Middle East and exploding the myth of Israel's invincibility," it said.
Others looked closer to home for a possible culprit.
Lebanon's Free Shi'ite Movement, a critic of Hizballah and Syria, accused the Syrian government of carrying out the killing of "one of the symbols of the Islamic Resistance," in a bid to stoke political tensions inside the country.
Syria has long dominated and interfered in the domestic affairs of Lebanon, and President Bush this week again accused Syria and Iran of stoking the political crisis in the country.
Lebanon's English-language Daily Star said in an editorial it was still too early to rule out the involvement of President Bashir Assad's government, "which may have sanctioned the killing to ward off international pressure over its role in providing safe haven to Islamist militants."
Bin Laden links
Despite the sectarian divide within Islam, Shi'ite Mughniyah had close ties to Sunni terror chief Osama bin Laden, according to leading terrorism researchers.
In his book Inside Al-Qaeda , Rohan Gunaratna said Mughniyah had "inspired Osama to develop co-ordinated, simultaneous attacks as a regular modus operandi," and noted that this had characterized later al-Qaeda operations including the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa and 9/11.
Yossef Bodansky, in his 1999 biography, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America , recounted meetings attended by Mughniyah and bin Laden in Khartoum in 1995 and Tehran in 1996, and by Mughniyah and al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri in Tehran in 1997.
At the June 1996 meeting, Bodansky wrote, Iran established a Shi'ite-Sunni "committee of three" to coordinate and plan terror attacks internationally. The three were bin Laden, Mughniyah, and Ahmad Salah of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, also a Sunni.
Among the attacks discussed by the committee at the meeting, he said, were the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia several days later, and the downing of TWA flight 800 the following month (A National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded that an explosion resulted from the accidental ignition of the flammable fuel/air mixture in the plane's fuel tank.)
'World a better place'
Although Israel has formally denied responsibility for Mughniyah's assassination, it wouldn't be the first time it is suspected of carrying out a lethal anti-terror operation under the noses of the Syrians.
In September 2006, a senior Hamas terrorist was killed when his car exploded in Damascus. Hamas blamed the Israeli government, which issued no comment.
Hundreds of Americans were killed in attacks blamed on Mughniyah, which included:
-- bombings in Beirut in 1983 in which more than 350 people, including 241 U.S. servicemen and 58 French troops, were killed;
-- the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen;
-- the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which cost 29 lives; and
-- the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community building in Buenos Aires, which left 85 people dead. Interpol last year complied with an Argentinean request and issued "red notices" for Mughniyah and five Iranians, including Tehran's former intelligence chief and a former leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Mughniyah was also on the FBI's most-wanted list for masterminding the 1985 hijacking of a TWA plane. During the 17-day crisis, the terrorists killed 23-year-old Navy diver Robert Stethem. (In late 2005, Germany controversially released convicted Hizballah terrorist
Mohammed Hamadi, 18 years after he was sentenced to "life" imprisonment for the hijacking and the murder of Stethem. Hamadi returned to Lebanon.)
"The world is a better place without this man in it," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack of Mughniyah. "One way or the other he was brought to justice."
The Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs said Mughniyah "was a believer in suicide bombs for others, while he lived comfortably in Damascus."
"He lived for the destruction of Israel and the killing of Jews," JINSA said. "Someone lived for his destruction and killed him as he killed."
"We owe someone thanks for the symmetry."
Hizballah: Iran's Tool (July 14, 2006)
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