Thursday, 14 February 2008

Hezbollah military leader slain

NEWS ANALYSIS: Despite denials, many believe Israel tracked, killed its No.1 enemy in Syrian capital

Jerusalem -- Shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday, an aide handed Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak a brief message of no more than five words. Barak glanced at the note, pursed his lips, and continued briefing reporters about his trip to Turkey.

Barak, a former commander of an elite special operations unit and a highly decorated veteran of many daring raids into enemy territory, had just been informed of the assassination of Israel's Enemy No. 1 - Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh.

Was Barak's apparent lack of surprise an indication that he had been expecting the news, or was he too stunned to react?

The Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah and its ally, Iran, immediately blamed Israel on Wednesday for the assassination by car bomb in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

"This is a loss of a major pillar in resistance work. He was an expert at making victories and building fighting capacities against Israel," Ali Hassan Khalil, a member of Lebanon's parliament with Amal, a Shiite Muslim group allied with Hezbollah, told the Washington Post. "He played an essential role in all resistance activities, especially the last war."

Many analysts believe the Lebanese-born Mughniyeh's slaying was orchestrated by the Mossad, Israel's secret service, an allegation quickly denied by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"Israel rejects the attempt by terrorist elements to ascribe to it any involvement whatsoever in this incident," said a statement by Olmert's office in a rare departure from a long-standing policy not to comment on intelligence matters.

But if Israel was behind the assassination "it can be seen as the most significant intelligence accomplishment in the war on terror," said Yossi Melman of the daily newspaper Ha'aretz, an expert on Israeli intelligence.

The death of the 45-year-old Mughniyeh in the heart of Damascus is deeply embarrassing for Syria, which has long provided a safe haven for Palestinian and Iranian-backed terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Some analysts say the assassination has also rocked the highly secretive network linking the Iranian Revolutionary Guards with Hezbollah and other groups whose terrorist operations could be a key weapon against Western attempts to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

But whoever killed Mughniyeh, his death has sent a clear message to Beirut, Damascus and Tehran that nobody is safe if they threaten Israeli security.

"If there is no court capable of bringing people like this to trial, they have to be dealt with in another manner," said Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. "They won't be able to live to a ripe old age."

Mughniyeh's security precautions had been legendary. He rarely appeared outside his inner circle and traveled between hiding places in Lebanon, Syria and Iran. He was rarely photographed, never appeared in public, and reportedly underwent plastic surgery to alter his appearance after the FBI placed a $5 million bounty on his head in 2001 over his role in planning the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner that killed a U.S. Navy diver. It is believed he never slept in the same place two nights in a row.

"Mughniyeh is probably the most intelligent, most capable operative we've ever run across," Robert Baer, a former CIA operative who hunted Mughniyeh for years, said in a past interview on the "60 Minutes" news program. "He enters by one door, exits by another, changes his cars daily, never makes appointments on a telephone, never is predictable. ... He only uses people that are related to him that he can trust. He is the master terrorist, the grail we are after since 1983."

Israeli counterterror expert Boaz Ganor of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya said Mughniyeh was the linchpin of Hezbollah's international terror network, which also acts as an arm of Iranian intelligence.

"Mughniyeh's importance lies not only in his ability to execute extraordinary attacks against targets around the world - or even in his control of Hezbollah's operational branch in Lebanon - but more significantly in the close connections he established between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah," Ganor wrote in the Jerusalem Post. "Mughniyeh positioned himself as the operational link between these actors."

Mughniyeh was the alleged mastermind of the 1983 bombings of a Marine barracks that killed 241 and the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon earlier that year. Western intelligence agencies have blamed him for the early-1990s bombings of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 114 people. He was also linked to the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, an attack that killed 19 Americans, according to the Associated Press.

Steinberg says whoever killed Mughniyeh not only found him in the upscale Kfar Sousse neighborhood but booby-trapped his Mitsubishi Pajero from under his security's nose. He figures it was an inside job, which should cause Hezbollah and Iran to worry about infiltration at the highest levels.

"If this was the Mossad, and I have no idea if that is the case, then it is a clear demonstration that they are back in the game, that they have managed to restore their capability for secret operations that was somewhat degraded during the 1990s and reached its low point with the botched assassination attempt against Hamas chief Khaled Mashal in Jordan in 1997," said Steinberg. "This would be Israel restoring its deterrent capability and sending a clear message to its terrorist enemies: You can run, but you can't hide."

Steinberg also points out that other nations also wanted Mughniyeh dead, including the United States. In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack echoed that sentiment.

"You can just go down the list of other nationalities that were affected by his acts of terror. ... The list goes on and on and on," McCormack told reporters. "He was a cold-blooded killer, a mass murderer and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost. One way or another he was brought to justice."

Meanwhile, Mughniyeh's body was brought to Beirut in a coffin wrapped in Hezbollah's yellow flag. The militant group announced there would be a demonstration Thursday in its south Beirut stronghold amid calls for revenge. Israeli embassies and consulates have been placed on high alert.

This article appeared on page A - 10 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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