BEIRUT (Reuters) - Senior Hezbollah commander Imad Moughniyah, on the United States' most wanted list for attacks on Israeli and Western targets, has been killed by a bomb attack in Damascus, the Lebanese group said on Wednesday.
Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, accused Israel of assassinating Moughniyah by planting a bomb in his car. Tehran blamed Israel and condemned the attack as an act of "state terrorism". Washington welcomed his death.
Israel denied any involvement in the killing, seen as a major blow to a group whose last confrontation with the Jewish state was the 34-day war of 2006.
Moughniyah, 45, was killed late on Tuesday. He had long been on a list of foreigners Israel wanted to kill or capture and had been top of Washington's wanted list before al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden emerged as an enemy of the United States.
"His killing is a huge blow to Hezbollah," Magnus Ranstorp, terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defence College, said.
In his first official reaction to Tuesday's killing, Syrian Interior Minister Bassam Abdel Majeed condemned the attack as a "terrorist act" and said that an investigation was under way.
"Syria condemns this cowardly terrorist act and presents its condolences to the Lebanese people and to the family of the martyr," the official SANA news agency quoted Abdel Majeed as saying.
Moughniyah was implicated in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy and U.S. Marine and French peacekeeping barracks in Beirut, which killed over 350 people, as well as the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires and the kidnapping of Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980s.
The United States indicted him for his role in planning and participating in the June 14, 1985, hijacking of a U.S. TWA airliner and the killing of an American passenger.
"The world is a better place without this man in it. He was a cold-blooded killer, a mass-murderer and a terrorist responsible for countless innocent lives lost," State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said.
"One way or another he was brought to justice," he said.
Hezbollah, a strong political and military force in Lebanon, called followers to his funeral on Thursday.
"After a life full of jihad, sacrifices and accomplishments ... Haj Imad Moughniyah ... died a martyr at the hands of the Israeli Zionists," Hezbollah said.
Moughniyah's coffin, draped in a Hezbollah flag and flanked by four men in military uniform, was laid in a hall where his family and leaders of the Shi'ite group received condolences.
The 2006 war with Israel was triggered by a Hezbollah cross-border raid in which two Israeli soldiers were captured.
According to Israeli intelligence assessments, Moughniyah was involved in planning the operation. He had also once been head of the security network of Hezbollah, a group which emerged in the early 1980s during Lebanon's civil war.
Israel accuses Moughniyah of planning the 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and of involvement in a 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in the Argentine capital that killed 28.
"He was not only being targeted by Israel, but also by the Americans and many other parties," said former Mossad head Danny Yatom on Israel Radio. "He was one of the terrorists with the most amount of intelligence agencies and states chasing him."
Moughniyah had been a very tough target to track, he said. "He behaved with extreme caution for many years. It was impossible even to obtain his picture. He never appeared or spoke before the media.
"His identity was hidden. His steps were hidden. He behaved with extreme caution, and that was the reason it was difficult to get to him for so many years."
The United States tried to detain Moughniyah several times,
including a 1995 attempt to arrest him when the plane he was traveling was due to stop in Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials refused to allow the plane to land, diplomats say.
The attack occurred at an upmarket district housing an Iranian school, a police station and a Syrian intelligence office. Witnesses said that scores of police and intelligence officers rushed to the site. A police truck towed away the destroyed car, a new model Mitsubishi Pajero.
Senior Hamas officials, including leader Khaled Meshaal, live in exile in Damascus.
"Israel rejects the attempts of terror elements to attribute to Israel any involvement in this incident," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said in a statement.
Moughniyah is thought to have been commander of Islamic Jihad, a shadowy pro-Iranian group which emerged in Lebanon in the early 1980s and was believed linked to Hezbollah.
Islamic Jihad kidnapped several Western hostages, including Americans, in Beirut in the mid 1980s. The group killed some of its captives and exchanged others for U.S. weapons to Iran in what was later known as the Iran-Contra scandal. Among those killed was the CIA's station chief.
Moughniyah's brother was killed in a car bomb in Beirut in 1994. Reports at the time suggested Imad had been the target. Moughniyah had spent much of the 1990s in Iran.
For a FACTBOX on Moughniyah click on
Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki in Beirut, Adam Entous and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Sue Pleming in Washington and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Damascus; Editing by Samia Nakhoul