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A Death in Damascus By: Claude Salhani
The Washington Times | Monday, February 18, 2008

Commenting on the killing of Imad Mughnieh, the shadowy Hezbollah operative who figured on the FBI's most wanted list and the U.S. State Department's list of most dangerous terrorists, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the world will be a "better place" without the man he called a "mass murderer and a terrorist."

Mr. McCormack said he did not know who was responsible for the car bomb that killed Mughnieh in Damascus Tuesday night.

The startling disclosure of Mughnieh's presence in the Syrian capital must have embarrassed the government of President Bashar Assad. Damascus has systematically denied supporting terrorists, claiming groups labeled "terrorists" by the United States and Israel are considered liberation movements by the Syrian government and by other Arab countries as well.

But what if there is more to this assassination than initially thought? A knee-jerk reaction would be to list the usual suspects and assume Mughnieh was a guest of Syria. Just as a knee-jerk reaction would presume Israel pulled the trigger that killed the man. It's not as though the Jewish state lacked incentives to want him dead.

Mughnieh was on Interpol's most wanted list for his alleged participation in an attack on an Israeli-Argentine target in which 85 people were killed and nearly 300 wounded. Israel linked him to the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people.

As for the United States, it too has good reasons to want him dead, and it explains the sentiment expressed by the State Department spokesman.

U.S. intelligence believes Mughnieh to be implicated in the attacks on the U.S. Marines compound in Beirut and against the U.S. Embassy in the Lebanese capital. The first attack on the embassy killed a number of CIA Middle East operatives, while the bombing of the Marine barracks resulted in the deaths of 241 U.S. service personnel. He is also accused of the kidnap and murder of Beirut CIA chief William Buckley. And, it is believed he organized the hijacking of a TWA airliner in Beirut in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed and his body thrown onto the tarmac.

The French want him for an explosion at a French military position in Beirut that killed 58 French soldiers, moments after the attack on the U.S. Marines.

But what if, as one Syria expert adviser to the U.S. government hinted yesterday, things are not always as they first appear. "Think outside the box," said the specialist, hinting that it is possible Syrian intelligence put the finger on Mughnieh for assassins, obviously with the government's blessing.

Why would Damascus do that? Why would Damascus facilitate the killing of one of the most wanted men on the U.S. terrorist lists?

Indeed, knowing the grip Syrian intelligence services maintain on all foreign operatives in the country, it is hard to imagine such an operation could have been pulled off without the knowledge, if not the outright cooperation, of the country's security services.

An assassination operation would have required, first, positive identification and knowledge of Mughnieh's location. He was known to have been extremely security conscious, to have assumed multiple identities and even to have undergone several plastic surgeries to change his appearance.

It would have required continuous surveillance of the target to establish a pattern or identify the appropriate time and location for the hit. And it would have required access to explosives and the means of putting it all together.

If this means the Hezbollah operative with a $5 million bounty on his head was "given" to those who wanted him dead, the question remains, why? If there is any truth to that theory, what is Damascus to gain in return? A deal on the Hariri affair? A greater say in Lebanese affairs with the blessing of Washington and Paris? The possibilities are as many as they are mind-boggling.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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