Imad Mughniyeh lived much of his life in the shadows, changing his appearance through plastic surgery and traveling on forged passports. He was one of the world’s most wanted and elusive terrorists, and perhaps it is only fitting that his death would be shrouded in mystery.
Throughout the Middle East, Mughniyeh’s name would be mentioned in whispers. Once the security chief of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, he was the suspected mastermind of a series of suicide bombings in the 1980s against the U.S. Marine barracks and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, which killed hundreds of Americans. He was assassinated Tuesday night by a car bomb in Damascus, the Syrian capital.
No one has claimed responsibility for Mughniyeh’s killing, but Hezbollah and its main patron, Iran, blamed Israel. “The brother commander Imad Mughniyeh became a martyr at the hands of the Zionist Israelis,” Hezbollah said, announcing the death yesterday on its TV station. It was Hezbollah’s first public mention of Mughniyeh, 45, in more than a decade.
Israel, which normally takes credit for its assassination of militant leaders, denied responsibility. The killing was the first major attack against a Hezbollah leader since Israel assassinated the group’s secretary-general, Sheik Abbas Mussawi, in 1992.
Consequences of slaying
No matter who was behind Mughniyeh’s death, it will have profound consequences for Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinians. If Israel was responsible, it is a message to both Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, many of whose leaders live in exile in Syria.
Last month, Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah angered Israel when he announced his group has the remains of several Israeli soldiers killed during the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006. Israeli officials denied that and ratcheted up their threats against Nasrallah. Mughniyeh’s killing could be a message to Hezbollah that Israel is capable of reaching the group’s leaders no matter where they are hiding.
The assassination is also a warning to Hamas, which has been firing nearly daily volleys of homemade rockets from Gaza into Israel. The Syrian regime has allowed leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian groups that reject peace with Israel to operate from Damascus for two decades. The group’s leaders meet frequently with top Syrian officials, including President Bashar Assad.
Leaders take precaution
In September 2004, a Hamas commander was killed in a car bombing in Damascus that was widely blamed on the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency. After that killing - the first of a Hamas operative inside Syria - the group’s leaders took new precautions and Syrian secret police became more involved. Most major decisions within Hamas are made by its political bureau, which has eight to 10 members who mainly live in Syria. That includes Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas’ political bureau.
After Saddam Hussein’s ouster, the Bush administration accused Syria of sheltering Iraqi Baathist leaders and allowing Islamic militants to slip into Iraq to fight U.S. forces. In 2004, President George W. Bush imposed economic sanctions against Damascus and tried to isolate it. That policy accelerated after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in which a UN investigation has implicated top Syrian officials.
Leader makes alliances
In response to America’s cold shoulder, Assad’s regime became more dependent on Iran, which helped shore up the Syrian economy with construction investments and cheap oil. Damascus also enhanced its alliance with Hamas, Hezbollah and the renegade Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Assad knows the United States cannot find a way out of Iraq without his help. He keeps his connections to Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Sadr as potential bargaining chips that can shape events in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq.
Naturally, Assad wants something for his troublemaking: His main goal is to preserve his Alawite minority regime that rules a Sunni-dominated country (the Alawites are an offshoot of Shia Islam). But the holy grail for Assad is to regain control of the Golan Heights, a strategic terrain that Israel occupied during the 1967 Middle East war.
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