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."
"When we see that the extended hand is sincere, it will only be met by an extended hand," Nasrallah answered hours later in a stentorian voice at Mughniyah's funeral.
A coffin said to hold Mughniyah's body was draped in the yellow banner of Hezbollah, beneath a portrait that declared him "a great leader and martyr." The mournful iconography of Shiite Islam's holiest day, Ashura, was still hanging around it. Men in black uniforms and berets stood at attention on the stage, joined by an honor guard bearing flags and a military band that played Hezbollah's anthem, then Lebanon's.
Every one of the thousands of seats was filled, and the crowd spilled into nearby, hardscrabble streets. Some mourners cried. Others photographed the coffin with their cellphones or held aloft pictures of the bearded, stocky Mughniyah.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who was in attendance, read a message of condolence from Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In a mark of the group's ties to Iran, which helped found Hezbollah in the wake of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Mottaki was seated between Hezbollah's deputy leader and Mughniyah's father.
"Let the Israelis hear me well. In any war, you wouldn't face one Imad Mughniyah, but tens of thousands of Imad Mughniyahs," said Nasrallah, whose remarks were broadcast live onto a theater-size screen.
The portrait of Mughniyah was the first time that many at the funeral had seen the face of a man whose elusiveness over the years had made him a ghostlike figure. His supporters, who knew him as Hajj Radwan, his nom de guerre, revered him for helping to drive U.S. forces out of Lebanon in the early 1980s. To his foes, he was the mastermind of some of the most devastating attacks on Israeli and American targets in a generation.
The Americans blamed him for the bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon in 1983 and 1984, and the 1983 attack on the U.S. Marine barracks there that killed 241 service members. Nasrallah said Mughniyah had played a key role in organizing Hezbollah's defenses during its 33-day war with Israel in 2006, which the group considers a victory.
But in a 2006 interview with the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, published Thursday, Mughniyah played down the scope of exploits attributed to him.
The Americans "make it sound as if I hold the keys to the universe," he was quoted as saying. "It was difficult for them to be convinced that I am part of an organization that plans its steps with calm, an organization that patiently thinks and plans to achieve what needs to be achieved, and that doesn't do it as a reaction or with anger."
At the earlier rally, both Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, another pro-government leader, suggested that Syria, not Israel, was behind Mughniyah's killing. Some have suggested that Syria's cooperation would have been necessary to kill a man who evaded U.S. and Israeli agencies for 25 years and adhered to a caution that earned the grudging respect of even his enemies. He was said to have undergone plastic surgery to change his identity, and his whereabouts -- in Lebanon, Iran or elsewhere -- were always a matter of speculation.
"Look what happened yesterday," Jumblatt told the crowd. Syria and its allies "are tearing each other apart. They are eating each other. This is a regime of treason."
In Damascus, there were no signs of an investigation at the scene of the attack, and onlookers were not barred from the site. A patch of black that designated the blast had been washed away by rain, and on Thursday, a car was parked over it. Residents said the Mitsubishi Pajero in which Mughniyah was killed had been parked for at least three days.
"The police came and asked a few questions," said a woman whose apartment was near the attack site. "But had even I been an inspector, I would have asked more questions. They came for a couple of minutes and left. That was all."
Correspondent Griff Witte in Jerusalem and special correspondents Lynn Maalouf in Damascus and Alia Ibrahim in Beirut contributed to this report.