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Hezbollah leader's death in Syria could trigger retaliation

Imad Mughnieh, suspected of planning kidnappings, hijacking, and attacks in Beirut during the 1980s and '90s, was killed in Damascus Tuesday night.

By Correspondent / February 14, 2008

Most wanted: Imad Mughnieh, wanted for attacks on US and Israeli targets, is seen in an undated photo taken from Hizbullah's Al Manar television station.

Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

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Beirut, Lebanon

A shadowy senior Hezbollah commander, thought to have masterminded spectacular terrorist attacks in the 1980s, was killed Tuesday in a Damascus car bombing that will almost certainly trigger a retaliation from the militant Shiite group.

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Imad Mughnieh's legendary militant credentials, which are thought to include attacks on the US Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, made him a prime American and Israeli target for decades and a significant figure in the arsenal of Hezbollah, the Islamist political and guerrilla force that Washington calls a terrorist organization. Analysts say that with Mr. Mughnieh out of the picture, Hizbullah has lost a key asset in its ability to strike in Lebanon or the region.

"This is as big a blow as it gets for Hizbullah security. It's even bigger than killing [Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah," says Magnus Ranstorp, a Hezbollah specialist and research director at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College in Stockholm.

Mughnieh, in his mid-40s, was accused of killing more Americans than any other militant before the 9/11 attacks, and the bombings and kidnappings he is alleged to have organized are credited with ending American intervention in Lebanon under the Reagan administration.

He is believed to have overseen the April 1983 suicide bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut and, six months later, the twin suicide truck-bomb attacks against the US Marine barracks and the French paratroop headquarters in Beirut, acts that killed nearly 400 people.

As of Wednesday morning, no one had claimed responsibility for his death. But many in Lebanon and Syria blamed Israel, who is believed to have carried out these sorts of targeted assassinations in Beirut and Damascus before.

The late-night blast Tuesday tore apart Mughnieh's car, which was parked near an Iranian school in the Damascus suburb of Kfar Soussa. Syrian authorities have only confirmed that one person died in the blast.

Mohammed Habash, a Syrian Islamist lawmaker, said that Damascus needed more time to conduct an investigation before commenting publicly. "Israel is always aggressive and doesn't respect international laws and norms and it has proved in the past that it doesn't respect countries' sovereignty, whether in Palestine, Lebanon, or Syria."

Hezbollah confirmed Mughnieh's death early Wednesday morning. "With all due pride, we declare a great jihadist leader of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon joining the martyrs," said a statement carried by Hezbollah's Al Manar television channel.

"This is a personal loss for Nasrallah," says Robert Baer, an ex-Central Intelligence Agency officer who tracked Mughnieh in the 1980s. "[Nasrallah and Mughnieh] are basically the ones who made Hezbollah, in the sense of driving the West out [of Lebanon] in the 1980s, then turning that power against the Israelis" occupying south Lebanon.

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