Israel, Embassies on High Alert After Assassination of Terrorist No. 1 / Imad Mughniyah Killed in Damascus

Israel denied yesterday any involvement in the assassination of Hezbollah's most senior military commander, Imad Mughniyah, 45, in an official statement issued by the Prime Minister's Bureau.

However, Syria, Hezbollah and its patron Iran accused Israel of being behind the blast in Damascus, which killed the chief of operations of the Lebanese Shi'ite organization believed to be responsible for a decades-long series of mass terrorist attacks throughout the world.

Washington welcomed the demise of Mughniyah, who is believed to be the mastermind, most famously, behind attacks on the Marines barracks in Beirut in 1983, as well as the hijacking of American citizens in Beirut during the 1980s.

The assassination occurred late Tuesday night when the SUV Mughniyah had entered exploded in an upscale neighborhood of Damascus, not far from an Iranian educational institution.

Mughniyah was implicated in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine and French peacekeeping barracks in Beirut, which killed over 350 people, as well as the 1992 bombing of the Israel Embassy, and the 1994 Jewish cultural center bombing, both in Buenos Aires. More than 100 people died in those two attacks.

The United States indicted him for his role in planning and participating in the June 1985 hijacking of a U.S. TWA airliner and the shooting death of 23-year-old Navy diver Robert D. Stethem.

"The world is a better place without this man in it," said State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack. "He was a cold-blooded killer, a mass-murderer and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost."

Israel considered Mughniyah responsible for the Hezbollah raids which captured Israeli soldiers, both at Har Dov in 2000 and in 2006, and also the key liaison between the organization and Iran.

"He was not only being targeted by Israel, but also by the Americans and many other parties," said former Mossad head Danny Yatom on Israel Radio. "He was one of the terrorists with the most amount of intelligence agencies and states chasing him.

"He behaved with extreme caution for many years. It was impossible even to obtain his picture. He never appeared or spoke before the media. His identity was hidden. His steps were hidden," Yatom said.

In an official statement, the Prime Minister's Bureau denied any involvement in the assassination adding that "Israel learned from the Lebanese and Syrian media about the assassination of a senior Hezbollah figure, and is still examining relevant details." The statement also rejected "the attempt by terrorist organizations to attribute to it any involvement in this incident. We have nothing further to add."

Israel's denials do not seem to have affected the impression in the Arab world and Iran that its secret service was behind the killing. Anticipating the possibility that Hezbollah would try to carry out a major attack against Israeli or Jewish targets worldwide in response to the killing, Israel's security issued orders to embassies and delegations abroad to be on high alert.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammed Ali Hosseini, described the assassination as "yet another example of state-sponsored terrorism," and the kind of "organized crime" promoted by Israel.

Describing Mughniyah's actions and period as a senior commander in Hezbollah as a "golden age" in the period of resistance against Israel, Hosseini said that "the free nations will remember forever and with pride the path of this warrior martyr."

Syria's reaction to the killing in its own capital of one of the world's most wanted terrorist masterminds was surprisingly muted. The Syrian media did not announce details of the assassination or the identity of the target until well after the news had been released by media in the Arab world. Initially the Syrian Interior Ministry stated that a man was killed in a blast in Damascus, but did not identify him.

In the first official reaction, Syrian Interior Minister Bassam Abdel Majeed condemned the attack as a "terrorist act," and said that an investigation was under way. "Syria condemns this cowardly terrorist act and presents its condolences to the Lebanese people and to the family of the martyr," the official SANA news agency quoted him as saying.

Hezbollah also blamed Israel for the assassination. Former Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh said yesterday that the killing is Israel's revenge for the "defeat" it suffered at the hands of the organization during the Second Lebanon War.

Hezbollah is set to hold an official funeral for Mughniyah in Beirut today at 2 PM, with the main event being a prerecorded address by the group's general secretary, Hassan Nasrallah.

Yesterday, Mughniyah's coffin, draped in a Hezbollah flag and flanked by four men in military uniform, was displayed in a hall where his family and leaders of the Shi'ite group received condolences.