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Hezbollah chief threatens to take battle with Israel anywhere in world
Mideast Lebanon Har 5358336
Lebanese pro-government supporters gather in downtown Beirut to mark the third anniversary of Rafik Hariri's assassination, Lebanon Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008. Throngs of Lebanese were turning out Thursday for two opposing Beirut gatherings _ Shiite Muslims supporters of Hezbollah to bid farewell to its slain top commander Imad Mughniyeh, and their pro-Western opponents at a downtown square to mark former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's 2005 assassination. - photo by Associated Press
    BEIRUT, Lebanon — The chief of Hezbollah told throngs of supporters at a funeral for slain commander Imad Mughniyeh his group would retaliate against Israeli targets anywhere in the world after accusing the Jewish state of killing the militant.
    Israel ordered its military, embassies and Jewish institutions overseas to go on alert earlier in the day, fearing revenge attacks for the car bomb that killed Mughniyeh Tuesday night in Damascus. The former Hezbollah security chief was one of world’s most wanted fugitives, accused of masterminding attacks that killed hundreds of Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s.
    While Hezbollah supporters bid farewell to Mughniyeh, tens of thousands of their pro-Western political opponents filled a downtown Beirut square to mark former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination. The opposing gatherings reflected Lebanon’s divided soul and fearing clashes, authorities deployed thousands of troops. But by evening, there were no reports of violence.
    Hezbollah and its Iranian backers blamed Israel for killing Mughniyeh but Israel denied involvement.
    In a fiery, videotaped eulogy broadcast on a giant screen to tens of thousands attending the south Beirut funeral, Nasrallah said Israel had taken the fight outside the ‘‘natural battlefield’’ of Israel and Lebanon.
    ‘‘You have crossed the borders,’’ he said. ‘‘With this murder, its timing, location and method — Zionists, if you want this kind of open war, let the whole world listen: Let this war be open.’’
    Thousands gathered in a hall in the Roueiss neighborhood of Beirut where Mughniyeh’s coffin lay draped in a Hezbollah flag. A band played Lebanon’s national anthem and the guerrilla group’s anthem. Outside in the rain, tens of thousands more stood in silence.
    Nasrallah — himself in hiding because of fears of assassination since the 2006 summer war with Israel — 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, drawing roars from the crowd which raised fists into the air.
    Nasrallah said the killing of Mughniyeh did not weaken his organization, but rather provided an incentive for ‘‘tens of thousands’’ of guerrillas who stood ready to fight Israel.
    Soon after he finished speaking, volleys of celebratory gunfire echoed around the city’s southern suburbs.
    Unlike many Middle Eastern leaders whose speeches are riddled with idle rhetorical threats, Nasrallah is known for delivering on his promises, and Israel takes his threats seriously.
    In 2006, he promised 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. Early in the fighting, Nasrallah said he would have ‘‘surprises’’ for Israel. Days later, his fighters hit an Israeli warship off the Lebanese Mediterranean coast with Chinese-made shore-to-sea C-802 missile, the first time the group had used the weapon. The war devastated south Lebanon, but Israel and Hezbollah have not negotiated a prisoner swap.
    In Washington State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said threats such as Nasrallah’s are alarming.
    ‘‘As a general matter, those kinds of statements are quite concerning and they should be alarming to everyone,’’ he said. ‘‘Quite clearly, Hezbollah has a long record of carrying out violent acts and acts of terrorism around the globe. You have a pathway of violence that stretches from Buenos Aires to Kuwait and a lot of places in between.’’
    Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who came to the funeral in Lebanon, 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 of condolences from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with an interpreter translating into Arabic. ‘‘There will be hundreds and millions more’’ like him.
    Mughniyeh’s killing exacerbated tensions within Lebanon, a country already entrenched in a long-running political crisis that has left it without a president and with its parliament paralyzed.
    As the funeral proceeded in south Beirut, across the city tens of thousands gathered in the main Martyrs’ Square 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.
    They braved rain and cold, waving Lebanese flags, pictures of Hariri and party banners.
    Crowds also paid respects at Hariri’s gravesite next to the downtown square as his brother, Shafik, unveiled a statue of the slain leader at the spot where he was killed, a few hundred yards away on a seaside boulevard. A flame was lit and a taped message broadcast from Hariri’s widow, Nazek, who lives in Paris, urging against ‘‘falling into hatred’’ and calling on ‘‘unity to save the country.’’
    In the square, the sound of beating drums mixed with cheers from the crowd as speakers lashed out at Syria.
    Saad Hariri, leader of the parliamentary majority and the late premier’s son, launched a scathing attack against the Syrian government. But he spared Hezbollah and its opposition allies, apparently in deference to the funeral. He even reached out to the opposition, saying: ‘‘Our hand will remain extended no matter what difficulties and conspiracies there are.’’
    He also called for the election of a president in parliament, accusing Syria of obstructing the choice since November through its Lebanese allies.
    When Hariri alluded to Mughniyeh’s funeral on the other side of the city, the crowd booed.
    ‘‘He fell under the eyes of the Syrian regime,’’ he said of Mughniyeh, adding sarcastically: ‘‘God knows better.’’
    Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, a sharp critic of Hezbollah, said the government will not succumb to opposition efforts to deliver Lebanon ‘‘to the Iranian-Syrian black evil world.’’ Jumblatt accused the ‘‘treacherous regime’’ of Syrian President Bashar Assad of killing Mughniyeh.
    Suleiman Abu Ezzedine, 35, holding an umbrella, said he left work to come to ‘‘remind that we are the majority. We want justice, truth and peace.’’
    Hariri’s supporters blame Syria for killing the prominent politician in a massive suicide truck bombing in Beirut and for a series of bombings and assassinations since. Hariri’s killing ignited mass protests and international pressure that forced Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon after 29 years of control.
    The State Department said the anniversary was ‘‘a reminder to the world and the people of Lebanon about the sacrifices that many around the world and in Lebanon are making to build a strong democratic state.’’ Spokesman McCormack said the U.S. supports those who want to build a Lebanon ‘‘independent and unfettered by foreign interference.’’
    Authorities deployed some 8,000 troops and policemen to protect the Hariri rally. Armored vehicles took up positions on major intersections, and additional razor wire was brought in to separate the two sides. But there was no sign of violence by evening.
    Amid fears of street violence, the U.S. Embassy encouraged Americans in Lebanon to limit all but essential travel Thursday.
    Mughniyeh was on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists, and the U.S. had offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to his arrest or conviction. He was indicted in the U.S. for his role in planning the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed.
    He was also accused of carrying out or directing a series of spectacular attacks, including engineering the suicide bombings of the U.S. Marines barracks and two embassy compounds in Beirut in 1983-84.
    A total of about 260 Americans were killed in those attacks. Mughniyeh was also believed to be the mastermind behind the kidnappings of Americans and other Westerners in Beirut in the 1980s. Israel and Argentine prosecutors accused Mughniyeh of involvement in the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, attacks that killed more than 100 people.
    He vanished in the early 1990s, reportedly undergoing plastic surgery and moving between Lebanon, Syria and Iran on fake passports.
    Associated Press Writer Steve Weizman contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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