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Thursday, February 14, 2008       Free Headline Alerts

Mughniyeh kill seen as intelligence coup, sends shockwaves region-wide

LONDON — The assassination of Hizbullah operational chief Imad Mughniyeh is being called the greatest success of Israeli intelligence in decades, but other nations also played a key role.

Hizbullah has blamed Israel for the assassination of Mughniyeh in Damascus. Israel has denied responsibility but increased security around its facilities abroad.

Western intelligence sources and analysts said the car-bombing of Mughniyeh on late Feb. 12 marked a long and ardurous effort by Israel's Mossad with intelligence support from the United States and France. They said Mossad spent more than 20 years trying to find and kill the Hizbullah operations commander.

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On Thursday, Israel state radio's military correspondent, Carmella Menashe, termed Mughniyeh's assassination "a significant achievement for any intelligence service." Ms. Menashe reported an Israeli military alert along the border with Lebanon.

Hours after the assassination, U.S. President George Bush ordered new sanctions against Syria. The sanctions cited unidentified senior Syrian officials deemed corrupt.

On Thursday, an Iranian source told the London-based A-Sharq Al Awsat that Mughniyeh left Lebanon for Syria in January 2008 under a false name. The Iranian source said Mughniyeh had been under constant intelligence surveillance when he arrived in Damascus for talks with Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Masha'al on the situation in the Gaza Strip. The source termed Mughniyeh's death catastrophic for Hizbullah.

For about 15 years, Mughniyeh, believed to have undergone plastic surgery, was not seen by any Western intelligence service, the sources said. He reappeared during a visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Damascus in 2006.

Since then, the sources said, Israeli and U.S. intelligence coordinated efforts to find Mughniyeh. The two countries, along with France, were said to have cooperated in the assassination of other Islamic insurgency figures in Lebanon and Syria over the last four years.

"Mughniyeh was considered untouchable and to most unrecognizable," a senior intelligence source said. "This is a monumental intelligence achievement." "Israel is looking into the reports from Lebanon and Syria regarding the death of a senior Hizbullah figure and is studying the details arising from this, as they have been reported in the media in recent hours," a statement by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Wednesday. "Israel rejects the attempt by terrorist elements to ascribe to it any involvement whatsoever in this incident."

Mughniyeh was sought by Israel and the United States for a series of mass-casualty strikes on several continents since 1983. They included the suicide bombings of the U.S. embassy and Marine Corps headquarters in Beirut in 1983 as well as the destruction of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center in Argentina about a decade later.

"The world is a better place without this man in it," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "One way or the other, he was brought to justice."

A friend of Mughniyeh and a former IRGC operative, Mohammed Khatami, said he was not surprised by the assassination. Khatami, also known as Abu Wafa, told A-Sharq Al Awsat that Syrian intelligence had been concerned over Mughniyeh's safety as he traveled to such countries as Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.

Over the last decade, the sources said, Mughniyeh spent most of his time in Teheran where he served as liasion of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hizbullah. The sources said Mughniyeh's reappearance in Damascus nearly two years ago was meant to signal his return to prominence within Hizbullah.

The sources said Iran has groomed several candidates to succeed Mughniyeh. But they said IRGC would lose one of its top Middle East operatives, a man who combined lethal skills with iron determination to attack Israel and the West.

"The effect would be continuous," former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said. "The damage to this terrorist organization is hard and long-term."

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