Bombing Kills Top Figure in Hezbollah

By Anthony Shadid and Alia Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 14, 2008

BEIRUT, Feb. 13 -- The killing of Imad Mughniyah, a shadowy Hezbollah leader blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and Israelis in some of the most spectacular attacks in a generation, ends a 25-year pursuit of a man whose brand of political violence matched devastating carnage with ruthless effectiveness.

Hezbollah accused Israel of his killing and called for a show of strength Thursday, in the Shiite Muslim group's stronghold in southern Beirut, to mark the death of a man its supporters celebrated as a legend. Israel denied it was involved in the car bombing Tuesday night in Damascus, but Israeli and U.S. officials hailed his death.

"The world is a better place without this man in it. He was a coldblooded killer, a mass murderer and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "One way or another he was brought to justice."

Mughniyah's elusiveness rivaled only Osama bin Laden's and stretched over many more years. Until Sept. 11, 2001, the violence for which the United States blamed Mughniyah represented some of the deadliest single strikes against Americans, at home or abroad. In 1983 and 1984, the U.S. Embassy was bombed twice and the Marine barracks in Beirut were destroyed in a bombing that killed 241 U.S. service members. The attacks devastated American interests in the Middle East and effectively drove the United States out of Lebanon.

"He was one of the most dangerous terrorists ever on Earth," said Danny Yatom, former head of Israel's foreign intelligence service, the Mossad.

At the scene of Mughniyah's death, only a black patch on the asphalt remained from the explosion that tore apart a Mitsubishi Pajero in a newly built, upper-class Damascus neighborhood called Kafar Soussa. By Wednesday evening, the site was again open to passersby, although glass from shattered windshields still littered the ground.

One witness, who declined to give her name, said the explosion occurred about 10:15 p.m. and blew parts of the car into her apartment. Her husband said the blast hurled Mughniyah's body into the building entrance about 15 feet away, severing his arms and legs. He was dead by the time rescue workers arrived, she said. Other residents told her that the bomb detonated as Mughniyah opened the car after visiting Iranians who live on the building's second floor. "We hadn't seen him here before," she said.

Syria had no official comment. Although there have been periodic clashes in the capital involving radical Islamic fighters, the country's authoritarian government prides itself on the security it maintains, particularly in Damascus. Even so, some in Lebanon speculated that Mughniyah's slaying after so many years of having eluded his enemies could have been carried out only with Syrian involvement.

Word of his death came Wednesday from Hezbollah, whose television station al-Manar interrupted its programming with a Koranic recitation.

"With pride and honor, we announce the martyrdom of a great resistance leader who joined the procession of martyrs in the Islamic resistance," said a statement read on the station and published on Hezbollah's Web site. "The martyr, may his soul rest in peace, has been a target of the Zionists for more than 20 years."

The group called on supporters to begin paying condolences Wednesday. By afternoon, party officials and members of parliament, in cars with black-tinted windows, were arriving at a sprawling tent in a gritty southern suburb of Beirut. On a stage, a coffin wrapped in a yellow Hezbollah flag was encircled by baskets of flowers under a poster declaring Mughniyah "the great leader and martyr." It was unclear whether the coffin contained Mughniyah's remains.

"What they don't know is that today, by killing one Imad Mughniyah, they will give birth to another hundred Mughniyahs. Every time they kill one of us, hundreds more will be born," said one mourner, who would give only her first name, Zahra. "They consider him a terrorist. For us, he is a hero who was fighting our enemy."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company