Saturday, February 16, 2008

Haaretz reports on joint Syrian-Iranian investigation in Mughniyah murder

Source: Syria detains suspects in Mughniyah killing
By Yoav Stern, Haaretz Correspondent, and The Associated Press

A joint investigation into the Damascus assassination of Hezbollah deputy leader Imad Mughniyah is well under way and suspects have been arrested in the Syrian capital, a Lebanese security source said Friday.

Mughniyah was killed late Tuesday night when his car exploded in an upscale Damascus neighborhood in an incident that was not only a blow to Hezbollah, but also to Syria's much-vaunted internal security services.

The source said the investigation by Syria, Iran and Hezbollah showed that Mughniyah was killed by a car bomb parked close to his car. It was detonated remotely as he walked past after leaving a building he had been visiting.

Early reports said the bomb had been placed inside Mughniyah's car.

The suspects arrested in connection to the killing have been mostly Palestinians residing in Syria, the Lebanese source said.

Hezbollah and its main backer Iran have accused Israel of killing Mughniyah, who was also among the United States' most wanted men. Israel has denied any involvement.

The source added that Hezbollah has appointed a successor to Mughniyah. "A successor to Imad Mughniyah has been appointed, which is natural," said the source, who requested anonymity. "That's how Hezbollah works, they move quickly to choose successors of fallen leaders."

The source said the appointment was made hours after the announcement of Mughniyah's death in a car bomb in Damascus on Tuesday. He did not identify the successor, but said he was not one of the two names being circulated in the Israeli media.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki agreed with Syrian officials during a visit to Damascus on Thursday to set up a joint team to investigate the killing, Mottaki's deputy Alireza Sheik-Attar said on Friday.

Attar, speaking during Friday prayers, said that the team would investigate the circumstances surrounding the car bombing in Damascus, in order to "discover the identities of those who carried out this filthy crime."

Also Friday, the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese newspaper "Al-Akhbar" reported that investigators from the organization would also launch a probe into the incident. According to the report, there has been progress in the investigation.

The newspaper also reported on "hysteria in Tel Aviv," referring to the travel advisory issued to Israeli citizens traveling abroad by the Counter-Terrorism Bureau. On Thursday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah blamed Israel for the assassination and vowed to retaliate.

Iranian FM meets with Hamas, Islamic Jihad in Damascus

Mottaki held separate Friday meetings at the Iranian Embassy with Damascus-based Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal and Islamic Jihad chief Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, said the Iranian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Later in the day, Mottaki held a one-hour meeting with Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa to discuss the Mughniyah assassination.

"We discussed the terrorist crime that led to the martyrdom of one of the most senior commanders in the Lebanese Islamic Resistance (Hezbollah), martyr Imad Mughniyah," Mottaki told reporters after his meeting with al-Sharaa.

Mottaki also discussed Mughniyah's death with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday, accusing Israel of retaliating for its "losses" in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

The Iranian foreign minister said he "imagined it could exact a heavy price by assassinating one leader of the Lebanese resistance."

Mottaki flew to Damascus on Thursday from Lebanon, where he attended Mughniyah's funeral and offered condolences to the man's family and associates. Underlining Iran's close ties to Shiite Hezbollah, Mottaki sat between Mughniyah's father and a senior Hezbollah official.

Moallem: Perpetrators to be found soon

On Thursday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said investigations were underway into who was behind the car bomb that killed Mughniyah. He added that he expected the perpetrators to be found soon.

"Syrian security forces are continuing investigations into this terrorist crime and we hope you will hear results soon," Moallem said at a joint press conference with Mottaki. "We as a state will show with full proof the party involved in this crime and who stands behind them."

Moallem said those who killed Mughniyah "assassinated any attempt to revive the peace process," hinting for the first time that Israel might be involved.

Meshal said Thursday that Mughniyah's death would not deter the militant Palestinian group from continuing its resistance against Israel.

"We accept the challenge and we are not afraid at all," said Meshal at a wake for Mughniyah at a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus.

During Friday prayers in Baghdad, Sheik Suhail al-Eqabi read worshippers a statement that was issued Thursday by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr regarding Mughniyah's death: "The dirty hands have stretched out to get [Mughniyah] and he was sent to paradise where he became a martyr of world Islamic resistance."

Al-Sadr on Thursday declared a three-day mourning period for the death of Mughniyah.

Commentary: looks like Syria is fully cooperating with Iran and Hezbollah in the investigation of Mughniyah's murder. By accepting to cooperate Syria is tacitly also accepting that it remains on the list of possible suspects. Still, even if Syria is not guilty of complicity, the issue how Hezbollah so completely failed to protect one of its top officials is rather baffling. Had Mughniyah been killed in an airstrike such questions would not have been so crucial, but he was killed in a car bombing. According to the latest info, his car was not booby trapped, but Mughniyah drove by another car filled with explosives. This means that his killers had advance knowledge of his planned route, something beyond imaginable for a person who was a the top of both Israeli and US "wanted terrorist" lists. Even if Mughniyah himself was reckless, his security detail should have firmly prevented him from any routine travels.

Then there is the question of the detonation mechanism. If somebody had succeeded in planting explosives inside Mughniyah's car seats, the bomb could have been triggered mechanically by Mughniyah or a driver. But if Mughniyah was killed by a car he drove by there must have been a spotter triggering the device, which means that whoever committed this assassination had to be extracted from Syria *after* killing Mughniyah (unless, of course, satellites were involved in the tracking of Mughniyah's movements in which case the only country who could possibly be responsible for the killing is the USA).

It will be interesting to see what theory the Syrians come up with and, even more so, how many details they will provide to support their explanation.