Hezbollah chief threatens to take battle with Israel anywhere in world



By Sam F. Ghattas

BEIRUT, Lebanon – The chief of Hezbollah told throngs of supporters at a funeral for slain commander Imad Mughniyeh his group would retaliate against Israeli targets anywhere in the world after accusing the Jewish state of killing the militant.

Israel ordered its military, embassies and Jewish institutions overseas to go on alert earlier in the day, fearing revenge attacks for the car bomb that killed Mughniyeh Tuesday night in Damascus. The former Hezbollah security chief was one of world’s most wanted fugitives, accused of masterminding attacks that killed hundreds of Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s.

While Hezbollah supporters bid farewell to Mughniyeh, tens of thousands of their pro-Western political opponents filled a downtown Beirut square to mark former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination. The opposing gatherings reflected Lebanon’s divided soul and fearing clashes, authorities deployed thousands of troops. But by early evening, there were no reports of violence.

Hezbollah and its Iranian backers blamed Israel for killing Mughniyeh but Israel denied involvement. In a videotaped eulogy broadcast on a giant screen to thousands attending the south Beirut funeral, Nasrallah said Israel had taken the fight outside the “natural battlefield” of Israel and Lebanon.

“You have crossed the borders,” he said. “With this murder, its timing, location and method – Zionists, if you want this kind of open war, let the whole world listen: Let this war be open.”

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    Thousands gathered in a hall in the Roueiss neighborhood of Beirut where Mughniyeh’s coffin lay draped in a Hezbollah flag. A band played Lebanon’s national anthem and the guerrilla group’s anthem. Outside in the rain, tens of thousands more stood in silence.

    Nasrallah – himself in hiding because of fears of assassination since the 2006 summer war with Israel – warned Israel that its alleged killing of Mughniyeh was a “very big folly” which will be avenged.

    “Mughniyeh’s blood will lead to the elimination of Israel. These words are not an emotional reaction,” he said, drawing roars from the crowd which raised fists into the air.

    Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in the summer of 2006 and Nasrallah maintained that the war has not ended.

    He said the killing of Mughniyeh did not weaken his organization, but rather provided an incentive for “tens of thousands” of guerrillas ready to fight Israel.

    Soon after he finished speaking, volleys of celebratory gunfire echoed around the city’s southern suburbs.

    Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who came to the funeral in Lebanon, offered condolences to the family and Mughniyeh’s associates, before accepting condolences himself. Underlining Iran’s close ties to Hezbollah, he sat between Mughniyeh’s father and Hezbollah’s deputy leader.

    “He’s not the first martyr, nor will he be the last on this path,” Mottaki said, reading a statement of condolences from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with an interpreter translating into Arabic. “There will be hundreds and millions more” like him.

    Muhniyeh’s killing was “another shameful spot in the history of Zionism and their protectors in the world,” Mottaki said, adding: “These crimes will shorten the lifespan of those criminals.”

    Mughniyeh’s killing exacerbated tensions at a time when Lebanon is already entrenched in a long-running political crisis that has left it without a president and with its parliament paralyzed.

    As the funeral proceeded in south Beirut, across the city tens of thousands gathered in the main Martyrs’ Square to commemorate the third anniversary of Hariri’s assassination. The anti-Syrian rally appeared larger than the crowds at Mughniyeh’s funeral, but it had been planned weeks in advance.

    They braved rain and the cold, waving Lebanese flags and carrying pictures of the slain Hariri and party banners.

    Crowds also paid respects at Hariri’s gravesite next to the downtown square as his brother, Shafik, unveiled a statue of the slain leader at the spot where he was killed, a few hundred yards away on a seaside boulevard. A flame was lit and a taped message broadcast from Hariri’s widow, Nazek, who lives in Paris, urging against “falling into hatred” and calling on “unity to save the country.”

    In the square, the sound of beating drums mixed with cheers from the crowd as speakers lashed out at the opposition.

    Saad Hariri, leader of the parliamentary majority and the late premier’s son, launched a scathing attack against the Syrian government. But he spared Hezbollah and its opposition allies, apparently in deference to the funeral. He even reached out to the opposition, saying: “Our hand will remain extended no matter what difficulties and conspiracies there are.”

    He also called for the election of a president in parliament, accusing Syria of obstructing it since November through its Lebanese allies.

    When Hariri alluded to Mughniyeh’s funeral on the other side of the city, the crowd booed.

    “He fell under the eyes of the Syrian regime,” he said of the slain Hezbollah commander, adding sarcastically: “God knows better.”

    Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, a sharp critic of Hezbollah, said the government will not succumb to opposition efforts to deliver Lebanon “to the Iranian-Syrian black evil world.” Jumblatt accused Syria and the “treacherous regime” of President Bashar Assad of killing Mughniyeh.

    Suleiman Abu Ezzedine, 35, holding an umbrella against the rain, said he left work to come to “remind that we are the majority. We want justice, truth and peace.”

    Hariri’s supporters blame Syria for killing the prominent politician in a massive suicide truck bombing in Beirut and for a series of bombings and assassinations since. Hariri’s assassination ignited mass protests and international pressure that forced Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon after 29 years of control.

    Authorities deployed some 8,000 troops and policemen to protect the Hariri rally. Armored vehicles took up positions on major intersections, and additional razor wire was brought in to separate the two sides on rain-drenched streets. But there was no sign of violence by early evening.

    Amid fears of street violence, the U.S. Embassy encouraged Americans in Lebanon to limit all but essential travel Thursday. Across Beirut, businesses and shops put off popular Valentine’s Day celebrations for later in the week.

    Mughniyeh was on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists, and the U.S. had offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to his arrest or conviction. He was indicted in the U.S. for his role in planning the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed.

    He was also accused of carrying out or directing a series of spectacular attacks, including engineering the suicide bombings of the U.S. Marines barracks and two embassy compounds in Beirut in 1983-84.

    A total of about 260 Americans were killed in those attacks. Mughniyeh was also believed to be the mastermind behind the kidnappings of Americans and other Westerners in Beirut in the 1980s. Israel and Argentine prosecutors accused Mughniyeh of involvement in the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, attacks that killed more than 100 people.

    He vanished in the early 1990s, reportedly undergoing plastic surgery and moving between Lebanon, Syria and Iran on fake passports.

    Associated Press Writer Steve Weizman contributed to this report from Jerusalem.