Hezbollah Chief Warns Israel of Wide War

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 15, 2008

BEIRUT, Feb. 14 -- Hezbollah's leader threatened Thursday to strike Israel anywhere in the world in retaliation for what he said was its role in assassinating Imad Mughniyah, a Hezbollah commander blamed by the United States and Israel for killing hundreds in bombings, kidnappings and hijackings over a quarter-century.

In a video speech broadcast to thousands of mourners in a spare but sprawling tent in southern Beirut, Hasan Nasrallah said that because Israel had struck beyond what he called the "traditional battlefield" of Lebanon and Israel, it risked a borderless war with the Shiite Muslim group. Israel has denied involvement in the car bombing Tuesday that killed the 45-year-old Mughniyah in a tony neighborhood of Damascus, the Syrian capital.

"You have crossed the borders," he said in the speech, which was vehement even by Nasrallah's fiery standards. "Zionists, if you want this type of open war, then let it be, and let the whole world hear: We, like all other people, have a sacred right to defend ourselves, and everything we can do to defend ourselves, we will do."

"At your service, Nasrallah!" the crowd shouted to the cadence of fists in the air.

Israel put its embassies and other interests abroad on alert Thursday, reinforced its troops on the Lebanese border and warned its citizens of the prospect of kidnapping. Hezbollah was last accused of attacking Israeli interests abroad in the 1990s, when Argentina implicated the group and its Iranian backers in fatal bombings of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Many Lebanese believe the attacks were in retaliation for Israel's 1992 assassination of Abbas Musawi, Nasrallah's predecessor.

Mughniyah's funeral took place on a day that displayed the stark contrasts in a country still reeling from Hezbollah's war with Israel in 2006 and a deepening standoff that pits the Shiite movement and its Christian allies against a coalition of Sunni Muslims, Druze and Christians gathered around the government. That 15-month confrontation has left Lebanon without a president since November and paralyzed the work of its cabinet and parliament, marking the worst crisis since its 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

Hours before Mughniyah's funeral, tens of thousands of government supporters gathered at Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut to mark the third anniversary of the killing of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. His followers blame his assassination on Syria, which denies the allegation.

Unlike in past demonstrations downtown, the crowds appeared more dutiful than inspired, soaked as they were by a driving rain. But everywhere, there were signs of crisis. Followers of Hariri donned paramilitary outfits similar to those worn by Hezbollah's men, and supporters casually discussed the prospect of a renewal of the country's civil war.

"If they want war, we want war. If they want peace, we want peace," said Moussa Khader, a 55-year-old pro-government demonstrator. "We're just waiting for an order." He then quoted a proverb: "Things have to get bigger if they're going to get smaller."

The men venerated at the different events encapsulated the contest between the two cultures that has often defined the crisis. Hariri envisioned Lebanon returning to its place as a commercial hub of the Levant, albeit one infused with often spectacular corruption in the service of deal-making. Mughniyah sought to fulfill Hezbollah's vision of a country engaged in an ongoing confrontation with Israel that, as Nasrallah put it, made Lebanon "a land of resistance."

The two cultures spoke to each other at a distance.

"Our hand is extended and will remain extended, no matter what the difficulties," Hariri's son, Saad, told the crowd, in which many held banners that celebrated "Our Lebanon."

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