BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim mourners are flocking to the grave of slain Hezbollah commander Imad Moughniyah, saying the man who had been wanted by the United States and Israel was now a symbol of defiance.
Moughniyah was assassinated by a car bomb on February 12 in Damascus after more than two decades of being hunted down by a host of regional and international spy agencies.
He was Hezbollah’s military commander at time of his death and the site where he and other prominent fighters are buried has been turned into a shrine visited by supporters.
Hezbollah, a powerful group backed by Syria and Iran, commemorates on Monday the 40th day since his death. Its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is expected to address thousands of followers at the event in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Moughniyah’s tented gravesite lies a few kilometers from where the commemoration will take place. More than a hundred Hezbollah fighters are also buried there, including Nasrallah’s son, Hadi, who died fighting Israel in 1997. The site has seen a sharp increase in visits since Moughniyah’s death.
The grave, cut off part of a larger cemetery along southern Beirut’s main highway, is adorned with pictures of dead Hezbollah fighters and Koranic verses blare from loudspeakers.
Moughniyah’s grave lies at the centre with a framed picture of him set at the top surrounded by flowers.
Hezbollah and Iran have blamed Israel for killing Moughniyah, whose nom de guerre was Haj Radwan, and who was the commander of Hezbollah’s powerful guerrilla army when it fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006.
Though Israel rejects this charge, Moughniyah had been hunted by the Mossad spy service and was on the United States most wanted list for two decades for his role in a string of kidnappings, hijackings and attacks against Western and Israeli targets that killed hundreds in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“We feel proud of the martyrdom of Haj Radwan. He is the leader of war and victory against the Zionist enemy,” said Fatma Saad, a mourner who came with her family and friends in a rented mini-bus from a southern Lebanese village.
“It is an honor for us that he be considered a terrorist in the eyes of our enemies.”
Nasrallah has vowed to avenge his killing and has threatened Israel with “open war”, a sentiment expressed in a banner at the gravesite’s entrance which reads: “Oppressors will never enjoy peace of mind, our hand is on the trigger of the gun”.
Moughniyah was seen as a legend by supporters and his movements and whereabouts for more than 20 years were shrouded in secrecy from even top Hezbollah officials. He is believed to have moved mainly between Lebanon, Damascus and Tehran.
“We really did not know who Imad Moughniyah was, and we never knew that he was behind victories against the Israeli enemy but his esteem is greater after his martyrdom,” said Faten, Saad’s daughter. “He is a symbol of sacrifice.”
Several mourners said Moughniyah’s assassination would only strengthen Hezbollah’s resolve in its resistance against Israel.
“This martyrdom is a blessing from God. No matter how many they kill from us, we get stronger with the blood of our martyrs. God willing, we will all be on this path,” said Um Ali, 60, as she knelt by Moughniyah’s grave reading a Koranic verse.
Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Nadim Ladki