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    Middle East
     Feb 15, 2008
Death of Hezbollah kingpin: A war awaits
By Ehsan Ahrari

Those who live by the sword must die by the sword. Imad Mughniyeh must have known the adage, and now he, like all of his alleged victims, has met a violent death, of all places, in Syria, where he was hiding because that was perceived to be the safest place for him.

The 45-year-old Mughniyeh was said to be one of Hezbollah's top security strategists and high on America's list of wanted "terrorists". His last reported public appearance was at his brother Fuad's funeral in 1994 in Beirut.

Mughniyeh was killed by a car bomb in Damascus on Tuesday in an up-market district that houses an Iranian school, a police station and a Syrian intelligence office, Hezbollah announced on



Wednesday.

Hezbollah immediately accused Israel of assassinating Mughniyeh, who led the group's security network during the 1975-90 civil war in Lebanon. He was reportedly targeted by the Israelis for many years, while the Americans had a US$5 million award for information leading to his arrest.

"After a life full of jihad, sacrifices and accomplishments ... Hajj Imad Mughniyeh ... died a martyr at the hands of the Israeli Zionists," Hezbollah said. "The martyr had been a target for Zionists for 20 years."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office responded in a brief statement, "Israel rejects the attempts of terror elements to attribute to Israel any involvement."

The United States was explicit in expressing satisfaction at his death. According to State Department's spokesman Sean McCormack, "The world is a better place without this man in it. He was a cold-blooded killer, a mass murderer and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost. One way or another, he was brought to justice."

Among other acts, Mughniyeh had been accused of involvement in the 1983 bombings of the US Embassy and US Marine and French paratrooper barracks in Beirut, which killed more than 350 people, as well as the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the kidnapping of Westerners in Lebanon during the 1980s.

The world may be a better place, but the chances of another outbreak of violence between Hezbollah and Israel have escalated by more than a few notches.

Mughniyeh had a shady background throughout his adult existence. He was born in poverty, but no one knows for sure whether in Lebanon or Iran. It is unlikely it will ever become known who is responsible for his death, but that is of the least consequence.

What is important is that, even though the Hezbollah-Israeli hot war of July-August 2006 is officially over, that war continues. Israel cannot get over the fact that its conventional deterrence - that pretty much established to the Arab world, through the 1967 and 1973 wars, that the Israeli armed forces were invincible - was seriously jeopardized in 2006. The best-equipped forces in the Middle East could not eradicate Hezbollah.

After the ceasefire, neither Hezbollah nor the Israelis has ceased preparations for the next skirmish, except that the next round is likely to be bloodier and more destructive than the one in 2006.

Not too many authoritative volumes can be expected to be written on the Hezbollah-Israeli war of 2006; however, persons of Mughniyeh's background must have played a crucial role in it - he was Hezbollah's head of special operations. In that capacity, he must have had a role in the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers that ignited the war.

To understand the significance of Mughniyeh to Hezbollah, the following comment is pertinent. It was made to Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post by Ali Hassan Khalil, who is a member Parliament with Amal, another Shi'ite Muslim group allied with Hezbollah, "This is a loss of a major pillar in resistance work. He was an expert at making victories and building fighting capacities against Israel. He played an essential role in all resistance activities, especially the last war."

Mughniyeh undoubtedly also played an unpublicized but important role in the ongoing behind-the-scenes tug-and-pull between the Israeli, Iranian and Syrian intelligence forces. He had become a major figure in Hezbollah's shadowy military apparatus, and a central pro-Iranian figure. In that capacity, he was important both operationally as well as strategically.

He also had long-standing ties to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network.

Unfortunately, the death of one violent man, more often than not, leads to even more violence. The streets of Damascus - where Mughniyeh was killed - and Beirut - where he had lived - are already abuzz with talk of vengeance.

Translated into the language of high politics, this means that the chances of an outbreak of violence between Hezbollah and Israel are high. Syria and Iran - the real players in this fight - are not about to take on the Israel. But Damascus knows that Israel is itching to get even with Hezbollah. Similarly, Tehran knows that both the US and Israel are eagerly looking for an opportunity to neutralize its nuclear option.

In the high-powered calculations of nation-states - especially major regional actors, which Iran, Syria and Israel are - the promotion of their strategic interests are much too vital to be sacrificed by risking wars. Entities like Hezbollah, on the contrary, are eminently expendable.

"Small wars" -a la the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel - are also acceptable, even though they contain the risk of escalating into a major war. Not many people wish to hear this, but in those calculations, even a high level of "collateral damage" (another bureaucratic and dehumanizing phrase that serves as a euphemism for civilian death) is "acceptable", as long as those who lose their lives are not Iranians, Syrians or Israelis.

Aside from a possible outbreak of hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel related to Mughniyeh's death, another option for Syria and Iran might be to destabilize Lebanon.

That option is least risky in the sense that it would not necessarily lead to a war between Israel and Syria, but it would keep both the US and Israel more focused on Lebanon, rather than on either Iran or Syria. Lebanon is likely to suffer the consequences of the games that are being played between Iran, Syria and Israel.

Lebanon's civilians have never chosen to live by the sword. However, one miserable consequence of being a Lebanese is that someone else is determining that they must die by the sword.

Ehsan Ahrari is professor of Security Studies (Counterterrorism) at the Asia-Pacific Center of Security Studies. Views expressed in this essay are strictly private and do not reflect those of the APCSS, the United States Pacific Command, or any other agency of the US government.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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