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A nasty surprise awaited Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who was scheduled to arrive in Damascus yesterday to discuss the Lebanese crisis with Bashar Assad. Syria, the Iranian minister found out, is no longer a secure state, its intelligence is penetrable, and Iran's emissaries and friends - whether the leaders of Islamic Jihad or Hamas - are now, with Imad Mughniyah's assassination, in the first line of fire. Mottaki could have surmised that in Damascus, he too could be an easy target.

If Mottaki got a surprise, Assad was hit with the full blow that under his own nose, and not in fragmented Lebanon "full of traitors," as Hezbollah says, such a complex operation could have been cooked up and carried out.

But certainly the greatest shake-up will be felt by Hezbollah, whose intelligence structure, security capabilities, and assault architecture were built by Mughniyah himself.

This, therefore, is a strategic assassination, because of its potential repercussions beyond the removal of Hezbollah's supreme planner and operative.

Because the important question now is how the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis will respond in unison, and how each component will respond singly.

The prime target from now on will be Israel itself, Israeli and Jewish institutions around the world, and even Israeli airliners or airports frequented by many Israelis. These are considered security weak points, when faced with Hezbollah's undercover cells worldwide, which Mughniyah himself set up and activated on several occasions.

American targets might also be a "suitable" object for vengeance, and an attempt to parlay Mughniyah's slaying into political leverage. If American targets or civilians in the Middle East or Middle America are harmed as a result of an Israeli assassination, Nasrallah can hope for resulting pressure from the American public against Israel.

The question is what Israeli target would count as sufficient to meet Hezbollah's needs for vengeance and prestige.

The other roiling front is Lebanon itself, where a mass rally is scheduled to be held today marking the third anniversary of Rafiq Hariri's murder.

Thousands are expected to fill Beirut's plazas - unless the event is canceled - and in view of the violent rhetoric heard in Lebanon this week, and Mughniyah's assassination, this public display could spill over into mass clashes that the Lebanese army will be unable to stop.

Fears for a violent, even armed, outbreak are being fed by accusations from Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, that the Lebanese government collaborated with Israel during the Second Lebanon War.

Anger at the Lebanese government grew yesterday when it failed to react by evening to Mughniyah's assassination, did not join those condemning the killing, nor express sorrow over it.

If the Mughniyah assassination generates a mass outbreak in Lebanon, it might develop into a new civil war and create a tough front for Israel, since Lebanese chaos would likely spell the end of agreements reached following the Second Lebanon War and on the basis of Security Council Resolution 1701.

In the most dangerous scenario, Hezbollah will respond to the assassination by deciding to go to war with Israel, and thereby place the Lebanese government in an impossible situation.