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Hezbollah vows revenge over militant’s slaying

Special to The Times

The leader of Hezbollah told thousands of mourners Thursday that his Shiite Muslim militant organization would strike Israel to avenge the assassination of one of its most elusive top commanders.

Israel has denied orchestrating the car bomb attack that killed Imad Mughniyah on Tuesday in Damascus, the Syrian capital. But Hassan Nasrallah’s televised speech to a crowd of more than 10,000, many of whom stood in a chilly rain to watch Mughniyah’s coffin pass, was a rallying cry for Hezbollah to retaliate against the Jewish state’s interests anywhere in the world.

“You [Zionists] killed Hajj Mughniyah outside the natural battleground. . . . If you want this kind of open war, and let the whole world hear, let it be an open war,” Nasrallah said as thousands of angry mourners raised their fists and chanted slogans of support for their leader.

Anticipating attacks, Israel ordered its military, embassies and Jewish institutions to go on alert. Israeli troops were told to watch for provocations along the border with Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories. Palestinians reported more meticulous security checks at crossings from the West Bank into Jerusalem. Israel Radio reported that security had been raised on Israeli airplanes and ships and at sensitive installations.

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Analysts in Israel were doubtful that Hezbollah guerrillas would try to take revenge for Mughniyah’s killing with a cross-border raid like the one that started a war with Israel in the summer of 2006. They said an Israeli embassy would be a more likely target.

Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, a reservist and former head of Israel’s army intelligence research, told Israeli media that he expected Hezbollah would activate its international militant cells. “The organization will be operationally ripe within a reasonable time,” he said.

But it was uncertain how quickly Hezbollah could recover from the loss of Mughniyah, a military strategist who was wanted in a series of spectacular attacks over two decades, including hijackings, kidnappings and the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut that killed 241 American troops. He also was believed to have helped coordinate Hezbollah’s war with Israel in 2006. Nasrallah said Thursday that the war remained unfinished.

“The blood of Mughniyah will wipe them out of existence if God wills,” Nasrallah said in his speech, which was broadcast across Hezbollah’s strongholds in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Nasrallah, who fears Israel may attempt to assassinate him, has restricted his public appearances and often remains underground.

Nasrallah’s call to arms echoed across a deeply divided nation. Before he eulogized Mughniyah, in another part of Beirut, thousands of supporters of Lebanon’s beleaguered pro-Western government marched to commemorate the third anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. International investigators believe that Hezbollah ally Syria helped mastermind the car bombing that killed Hariri and ignited tensions and recriminations that have yet to calm.

Hariri’s son, Saad, a leader in the March 14 coalition, called on members of Hezbollah and other Syrian-allied Lebanese politicians to form a national unity government. Sectarian divisions and bickering over power-sharing arrangements have led to the repeated postponement -- 14 times -- of a parliamentary vote to elect a president.

Businesses and shops were closed across Beirut. Thousands of police and troops cordoned off areas with barricades and barbed wire to ensure that those mourning Mughniyah did not clash with those remembering Hariri. There were occasional skirmishes.

Unlike Nasrallah and other Hezbollah officials, who appear on TV giving rousing speeches, Mughniyah was an elusive man on the run for decades from Western intelligence agencies. Many mourners had never seen an image of him until Thursday, when pictures showing a heavyset man with a graying beard dressed in fatigues were held above the crowds.

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“This martyr is not the first and will not be the last,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who read a letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “He was unfairly martyred and this will be a seal of shame carried by the Zionists.”

In Israel, former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom derided the Hezbollah leader’s comments.

“Nasrallah’s words prove the extent to which Mughniyah’s assassination is a tremendous victory of the free world over terror organizations and their leaders,” said Shalom, a lawmaker with the Likud party. “This is a clear message that the world is determined to fight and defeat them and that anyone raising his head should expect a fate similar to that of Mughniyah.”

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Special correspondent Rafei reported from Beirut and Times staff writer Fleishman from Cairo. Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux and Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.


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