Barak: Syria, Iran may help Hezbollah retaliate for Mughniyah killing

Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the cabinet Sunday that Syria and Iran my assist Hezbollah in retaliation for the assassination of its deputy leader Tuesday in Damascus.

“It’s safe to assume Hezbollah will try to retaliate for the assassination of Imad Mughniyah, possibly with Iranian and Syrian assistance,” Barak said.

The defense minister said Mughniyah’s death dealt a serious blow to Hezbollah and global terror in general, stressing it would take Hezbollah a long time to find a suitable replacement.

Barak said he believes Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran do not know who carried out the assassination, but that nonetheless Hezbollah has decided to point an accusing finger at Israel. “The IDF and defense establishment are prepared on all fronts,” he said. “We have no interest in escalation, but we will conduct ongoing situation assessments regarding threats abroad in order to be prepared.

The defense establishment is concerned Hezbollah may use an explosives-laden unmanned aerial vehicle to attack a civilian or military target in northern or central Israel in retaliation for the Mughniyah assassination. The Israel Air Force has been placed on alert for such a possibility.

To date, Hezbollah has dispatched five Iranian-made drones against Israel, three of them during the Second Lebanon War in August 2006. Two were shot down by the air force, and one crashed. The drones were loaded with dozens of kilograms of high-grade explosives and apparently had been intended to crash in the heavily populated Dan region.

The IDF also has bolstered its forces along the northern border, anticipating Hezbollah may launch a massive rocket attack on the area. However, the army has no specific information about the group’s intentions in this regard.

Syrian and Iranian officials believe there will be a serious military confrontation with Israel in the near future, according to Al-Akhbar, a Lebanese daily affiliated with Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s response to the <>assassination<><> of Imad Mughniyah, the organization’s operations chief, will force Israel to make a “difficult decision,” the newspaper stated in an editorial. Hezbollah blames Israel for Mughniyah’s assassination in Damascus last week.

Ibrahim al-Amin, Al-Akhbar’s editor, said in a televised interview that Hezbollah does not intend to accept Mughniyah’s assassination quietly. Hezbollah’s response “will force Israel to make a big decision,” he said. However, he insisted that Hezbollah was not interested in a war with Israel.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese media announced that Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has appointed a successor to Mughniyah, but his identity has not been revealed. Israeli sources said Mughniyah’s successor is one of three persons: Ibrahim Akil, who is in charge of southern Lebanon; Fuad Sukur, a senior militia figure; or Talal Hamiyah, who was Mughniyah’s deputy. Meanwhile, the Lebanese media said none of these men are being considered.

The Lebanese daily Al-Safir reported Saturday that Hezbollah has gone on high alert in southern Lebanon and evacuated all of its local headquarters, fearing Israeli air strikes. According to the report, the organization has mobilized 50,000 militiamen.

Meanwhile, in Syria, the investigation into Mughniyah’s assassination continues.

“The investigation is being carried out with complete secrecy because of Mughniyah’s sensitive location before the ambush,” Al-Akhbar reported yesterday.

Mughniyah had emerged from a meeting shortly before he was killed.

He was killed near the offices of the chief of Syrian intelligence, Asif Shuwekat, who is President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law.

Several Palestinians were arrested for suspected involvement in the killing, the newspaper reported.