From Andrew Exum
Imad Mughniyah is dead, killed in Damascus by a car bomb at the age of 45. Mughniyah was believed to have been Hezbollah’s chief of military operations, and his assassination marks the first time a major figure in the movement has been killed since secretary-general Abbas Musawi in 1992—an assassination which brought the current secretary-general, Hasan Nasrallah, to power.
For many, Mughniyah was a reviled figure, wanted by both Israel and the United States for his alleged role in numerous attacks on American and Israeli targets—including the truck-bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the attack on the Israeli embassy in Argentina in 1992. (Formally, the FBI most-wanted him for his role in the 1985 hijacking of an American airliner to Beirut and the murder of a U.S. Navy diver on board.) For researchers such as myself, Mughniyah was of great interest because he represented a constant figure in Hezbollah throughout its evolution from an Iranian-backed Lebanese militia in the 1980s to a nationalist insurgent group in the 1990s and finally to its current incarnation as the most powerful political party in Lebanon—both in terms of weapons and popular support.
The timing of the assassination, from the perspective of Lebanese of all political stripes, could not have been worse. Tomorrow, after all, is the anniversary of the assassination of a great figure on the other side of Lebanon’s current political divide, former prime minister Rafik Hariri. One hopes that calm heads will prevail and that any ostentatious rallies in Hariri’s honor are postponed. At last year’s mass rally, ugly sectarian chants broke out, and surely given Beirut’s current tension, such chants could easily devolve into open violence.
This past week, Lebanon’s leaders once again irresponsibly postponed the election of a new president. So the assassination of Imad Mughniyah has taken place within a political environment that is, still, on a razor’s edge. If this year’s assassination and the memory of another lead Lebanon down a short path to civil war, Lebanon’s sectarian leaders will have only themselves to blame.
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