By Hussein Malla and Zeina Karam / Associated Press
BAALBEK, Lebanon | The attackers waited in an olive grove around midnight. As the Hezbollah commander pulled into the garage of his nearby apartment building, they went in after him. Five bullets were pumped into his head and neck from a silencer-equipped pistol — an assassination that reverberated across the Middle East.
The killing early Wednesday of Hassan al-Laqis, described as a member of the inner circle of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, was the latest in a series of recent attacks against the Iranian-backed group.
Hezbollah blamed Israel, which denied involvement. However, the Shiite militant group’s open support of Syrian President Bashar Assad has enraged Sunnis and left it with no shortage of enemies eager to strike at its strongholds and leadership. Dozens of people have been killed in deadly car bombings claimed by radical Sunni groups.
The group’s participation in the civil war in Syria is highly divisive and unpopular in Lebanon, where many feel it has deviated from its raison d’etre of fighting Israel and exposed the Shiite community to retaliation.
Most recently, two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, killing 23. An al-Qaida-affiliated group claimed responsibility, saying it was payback for Hezbollah’s support of Assad.
Al-Laqis’s killing came shortly after Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of being behind the embassy bombings in a sharp escalation in rhetoric against the Sunni regional powerhouse. In a three-hour interview with a local TV station, he indirectly suggested an alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia was trying to destabilize his group.
The Saudi monarchy is engaged in a proxy war with Iran over influence in the region, and in that, Riyadh has increasingly found common ground with the Jewish State.
“The assassination is another notch in tensions between Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia,” said Kamel Wazne, founder of the Center for American Strategic Studies in Beirut.
“There will be repercussions. It’s going to be more like an open battle,” he said.
Two previously unknown Sunni groups claimed responsibility on Twitter for al-Laqis’s assassination, but the claims could not be verified.
Al-Laqis, 53, was killed as he returned home from work, Hezbollah said.
“The brother martyr Hassan al-Laqis spent his youth and dedicated all his life in this honorable resistance since its inception up until the last moments of his life,” a statement from the group said.
An official close to the highly secretive group said al-Laqis held some of Hezbollah’s most sensitive portfolios and was very close to Nasrallah and his inner circle, often acting as a link with officials in Tehran.
“He was one of the brains behind much of the group’s operations,” the official said.
Hezbollah distributed a photo of al-Laqis and said Israel had tried to kill him several times. The image showed a man wearing beige-and-khaki military clothes, with neatly cut black hair and a graying close-cropped beard.
There were conflicting reports on whether he was involved in the Syria war, where the group’s fighters have helped Assad’s troops gain the upper hand in key areas near the border with Lebanon.
Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said the U.S. has seen reports of the killing and was looking to all parties “to cooperate with a full investigation.”
“We’ve been very concerned by recurring instances of sectarian and political violence in Lebanon, and we have talked about the negative impact that Syria has had in Lebanon and Iraq,” she said.
Al-Laqis was shot with a pistol equipped with a silencer at close range after he parked in his apartment building in the Hadath neighborhood southwest of Beirut, according to a Lebanese security official and the official close to Hezbollah. Several assailants appear to have been involved, they said.
Muddy footprints led from the olive grove to the parking garage. Yellow police tape blocked off the area, and Hezbollah investigators were at the scene.
He was struck by five bullets in the head and neck, the Lebanese official said. The gunmen fled, and al-Laqis was taken to a nearby hospital but died of his wounds, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
“I was trying to sleep, and I heard … a bullet being fired and a dog barking,” said Abdullah, a resident who asked to be identified only by his first name for security reasons.
“I did not bother myself, but later I heard people screaming. … Then our neighbors told us that one of the neighbors was assassinated,” Abdullah said.
Another resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of his safety, said none of the neighbors was aware that al-Laqis was a security man and that he went about his business like everyone else.
Al-Laqis did not have bodyguards with him, suggesting he did not want to draw attention to himself.
The assassination marked a rare breach of the Shiite militant group’s security — the fourth successful penetration of a Hezbollah enclave in recent months.
It also underscored how the militia has found itself engaged on multiple fronts: shoring up Assad’s rule in Syria while also keeping up the fight against Israel.
Some of Hezbollah’s most loyal supporters in the Shiite community have been reluctant to embrace its fight in Syria.
That involvement has raised tensions in Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite communities as each side lines up in support of their brethren in the Syrian civil war. That has fueled predictions that Lebanon, still recovering from its 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, is on the brink of descending into full-blown sectarian violence.
In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, there have been bloody street battles between rival sides nearly every day, with at least 12 people killed last week.
Al-Laqis was buried later Wednesday in his hometown of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon. A few thousand people took part in pouring rain, and women wept as Hezbollah pallbearers carried the coffin, wrapped in the group’s yellow flag, through the streets. Hezbollah fighters fired in the air in mourning.
“The Israeli enemy is naturally directly to blame,” the Hezbollah statement said. “This enemy must shoulder complete responsibility and repercussions for this heinous crime and its repeated targeting of leaders and cadres of the resistance.”
Israeli officials categorically denied involvement. Still, Israel could view the fallout from Hezbollah’s armed intervention in Syria — and the long list of enemies it has created — as cover to move against one of the group’s senior figures and settle old scores with Hezbollah and Iran.
Hezbollah has fought several wars against Israel. Al-Laqis’s son, Ali, died fighting Israel in the month-long 2006 war. Israel’s Mossad intelligence service has been suspected of assassinating Hezbollah commanders for more than two decades.
In 1992, Israeli helicopter gunships ambushed the motorcade of Hezbollah leader Sheik Abbas Musawi, killing him, his wife, 5-year-old son, and four bodyguards. Eight years earlier, Hezbollah leader Sheik Ragheb Harb was shot and killed in south Lebanon.
One of the biggest blows for the group came in 2008 when top military commander Imad Mughniyeh was killed by a bomb that ripped through his car in Damascus. Hezbollah and its primary patron, Iran, blamed Israel’s Mossad for the killing.