Israeli embassies on high alert after Hezbollah threat

February 14, 2008 6:25:14 PM PST
Israel ordered its embassies on high alert and the FBI put U.S. terror squads on guard to protect Jewish institutions after Hezbollah's leader vowed Thursday to retaliate anywhere in the world for the assassination of one of its top commanders.

"Zionists, if you want this kind of open war, let the whole world listen: Let this war be open," Hassan Nasrallah told a throng of fist-waving mourners who attended the funeral of Imad Mugniyeh, the mastermind of terror spectaculars that claimed hundreds of American lives.

Thousands of black-clad mourners raised their fists in the air, chanting, "At your orders, Nasrallah" in response to Nasrallah, who appeared via video. He has been in hiding since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon.

Nasrallah's fiery speech signaled the Iranian-backed Shiite group was ending a yearslong policy of battling Israel only on Israeli or Lebanese territory, raising the specter of attacks in Western or other countries.

Hezbollah and its Iranian backers blamed Israel for Mughniyeh's death in a car bombing Tuesday in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Israel denied involvement.

Nasrallah accused Israel of taking the fight outside the "natural battlefield" of Israel and Lebanon. "You have crossed the borders," he said.

Unlike Middle Eastern leaders who have indulged in exaggerated rhetoric, Nasrallah is known for acting on his threats. In 2006, he vowed to take action to free Lebanese prisoners in Israel, and in July that year, Hezbollah guerrillas staged a daring cross-border raid that snatched two Israeli soldiers as bargaining chips.

The incident triggered a 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah that devastated southern Lebanon, with the guerrillas lobbing several thousand rockets into northern Israel. It ended with the Israeli soldiers still captive and no deal for a prisoner swap has yet been reached.

Fearing revenge attacks after Mughniyeh's assassination, Israel ordered its military and embassies overseas on high alert Thursday and recommended Jewish institutions worldwide do the same.

And in Washington, the FBI put its domestic terror squads on alert for any threats against synagogues or Jewish centers in the United States.

Thursday's events in Beirut raised fears that Lebanon's internal turmoil could worsen. Earlier in the day, tens of thousands of Hezbollah's pro-Western political opponents filled a downtown Beirut square to mark the anniversary of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's 2005 assassination.

Fearing clashes, authorities deployed thousands of troops. The two mass gatherings ended with a few fights involving fists, sticks and knives between government supporters and opponents that left at least four injured.

Officially, the Israeli government denied involvement, but speaking privately, Israeli military officials were more vague, refusing to confirm or deny involvement. Israel has reacted with similar ambiguity after past assassinations widely believed to be the work of its spy agency, the Mossad. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

In Washington, the State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Hezbollah's statements were "quite concerning and they should be alarming to everyone."

"Quite clearly, Hezbollah has a long record of carrying out violent acts and acts of terrorism around the globe," he said.

Some experts suggested that Hezbollah could count on Iran for help on any attacks against Israeli targets. "The only aspect that is uncertain about Hezbollah's retaliation is its timing and location. Its happening and lethality are almost certain," said Bilal Saab, a Middle East security researcher at the Brookings Institution.

Hezbollah has retaliated in the past for Israeli attacks. A 1992 car bombing of Israel's Embassy in Argentina came a month to the day after Hezbollah's secretary-general Abbas Mussawi was killed in an Israeli helicopter strike in southern Lebanon. The 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires followed Israel's capture of a senior Hezbollah leader, Mustafa Dirani, and airstrikes on a Hezbollah training camp in Lebanon.

Western and Israeli intelligence agencies have accused Mughniyeh and Hezbollah of carrying out those attacks, which killed more than 100 people. Mughniyeh was also believed linked to a 1996 bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 17 Americans. Those were the last attacks outside Israel or Lebanon blamed on Hezbollah, though it denies responsibility.

The funeral hall in the Roueiss neighborhood of south Beirut was packed with mourners in front of Mughniyeh's coffin, draped in a Hezbollah flag. Two giant posters of the bearded militant leader in a cap and military fatigues were hung behind the coffin, with a banner reading, "The Great Commander Martyr - Hajj Imad Mughniyeh." Some mourners cried as a band played Lebanon's national anthem and the guerrilla group's anthem. Outside in the rain, tens of thousands massed.

Nasrallah 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.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who attended the funeral, offered condolences to the family and Mughniyeh's associates. 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 from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "There will be hundreds and millions more" like him.

The coffin was then carried through the crowds of mourners, who marched with it to a nearby cemetery, praying aloud, as some chanted "Death to Israel" and "Death to America."

Mughniyeh's killing exacerbated tensions at a time when Lebanon is already entrenched in a long-running political crisis between the Hezbollah-led opposition and the U.S.-backed government. Government backers accuse Hezbollah of seeking to restore Syrian domination of the country, while the opposition says the government is putting Lebanon in the hands of the United States and Israel.

Earlier in the day, tens of thousands gathered in the main Martyrs' Square of downtown Beirut 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.

Waving Lebanese flags and carrying pictures of the slain leader, crowds paid respects at Hariri's grave site as his brother, Shafik, unveiled a statue of Hariri at the spot where he was killed. The sound of beating drums mixed with cheers from the crowd as speakers lashed out at the opposition.

Saad Hariri, the late premier's son, launched a scathing attack against the Syrian government. But he spared Hezbollah, apparently in deference to the funeral, and even reached out to the opposition, saying: "Our hand will remain extended no matter what difficulties and conspiracies there are."

When Saad Hariri alluded to Mughniyeh's funeral, the crowd booed.

Associated Press writers Matt Lee in Washington, Aron Heller in Jerusalem and Lily Hindy in New York contributed to this report.