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Published: Friday, 2/22/2008

Death in Damascus

THE assassination of Hezbollah leader and terrorist mastermind Imad Mughniyeh risks setting off considerably more trouble in the Middle East and potentially elsewhere.

Make no mistake: Mughniyeh's departure from this world does not make it a worse place. In the 1980s and 1990s he either organized or was involved in an expansive list of evil deeds in the Middle East, directed against the United States, Israel, and general peace in what has always been a very bloody region of the world. Among the most notorious were the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut. There was some poetic justice in the fact that it was a car bomb that took him out on Feb. 12 in Damascus.

As to who killed Mughniyeh, in typical Middle East fashion there are at least four possibilities.

The first, seized upon by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a speech telecast at Mughniyeh's funeral in Beirut, was the most obvious - Israel. The second is also possible: the United States. At one point, because of the number and horrific quality of the attacks on American assets that Mughniyeh had been involved in, the United States offered a $25 million reward for him, dead or alive.

A third possibility is that his assassination was part of intra-Hezbollah wrangling for power and influence. A fourth is that the Syrians eliminated him because they had grown tired of hosting Mughniyeh, who was Lebanese, in Damascus, thus incurring the international and domestic criticism that comes with sheltering terrorists.

Who actually killed Mughniyeh is not just an obscure question for Middle East experts to ponder. The reason is that Hezbollah leader Nasrallah has pledged to take revenge for Mughniyeh's death.

Whether he actually knows who did it is another matter.

Hezbollah still holds at least two Israeli soldiers, the ones whom Israel went into South Lebanon unsuccessfully in 2006 to try to free. Nasrallah could order the killing of one or both of them to fulfill his promise of revenge. Or Hezbollah could kill the captives even if it knows that Israel was not responsible for the assassination.

If there is evidence that the United States did it, Hezbollah might simply take revenge on Americans or American interests, or on Israel by proxy. In any event, Syria will not take lightly the U.S. carrying out an assassination in its capital.

As always in the dangerous cauldron of the Middle East, the United States would be in a very poor position to respond to any attacks without setting off a wider inferno.



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