BEIRUT, Lebanon – Throngs of Lebanese came out Thursday for two opposing gatherings: Hezbollah backers for the funeral of a slain militant suspected in hundreds of American deaths, and their pro-Western opponents to mark the assassination of an anti-Syrian former prime minister.
It was a showcase of Lebanon's divided soul, and it raised fears of violence between the two sides, prompting authorities to deploy thousands of troops and block major roads.
Hezbollah urged crowds to south Beirut to march behind the coffin of Imad Mughniyeh, the group's former security chief who was killed in a car bombing in Syria on Tuesday night. The funeral was expected to fully be underway in the early afternoon as the downtown Beirut rally marking the third anniversary of former premier Rafik Hariri's killing wound down.
Mughniyeh was a long-sought fugitive suspected in a series of attacks against the U.S. and Israel, including the bombings of the U.S. Marines barracks and two embassy compounds in Beirut in 1983-84 that killed about 260 Americans. He was also the suspected mastermind behind the kidnappings of Americans and other Westerners in Beirut in the 1980s, including former Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson.
"Let us make our voice heard by all the enemies and murderers that we will be victorious, no matter the sacrifices," said a Hezbollah statement aired on the militant group's Al-Manar TV.
Hezbollah and its top ally, Iran, have accused Israel of Mughniyeh's slaying. Israel denied any involvement, but officials made no effort to conceal their approval of his death. The United States welcomed it.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah — himself in hiding because of fears of assassination since the 2006 summer war with Israel — was expected to address mourners through a video broadcast over a giant screen.
Mughniyeh's death from a bomb that blew up his SUV in Damascus could raise tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, as well as with the militants' allies, Syria and Iran. Some Lebanese figures close to the Shiite group called Wednesday for attacks against Israel.
In Israel, officials instructed embassies and Jewish institutions around the world to go on alert Thursday for fear of revenge attacks, and the army raised its awareness on its border with Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories.
Mughniyeh's slaying also could stir up more domestic turmoil in deeply divided Lebanon, where the Hezbollah-led opposition is locked in a bitter power struggle with the Western-backed government.
By midmorning, thousands poured into Beirut's main Martyrs' Square for the third anniversary of Hariri's assassination, braving the rain and the cold, waving Lebanese flags and carrying pictures of the slain leader.
Crowds paid respects at Hariri's gravesite next to the downtown square as his brother, Shafik, unveiled a statue of him at the spot where he was killed, a few hundred yards away on a seaside boulevard.
A flame was lit and a taped message broadcast from Hariri's widow, Nazek, who lives in Paris, urging against "falling into hatred" and calling on "unity to save the country."
The anti-Syrian parliamentary majority had hoped a massive show of popular support, perhaps by hundreds of thousands, on the Hariri anniversary would force the Hezbollah-led opposition to compromise in a 15-month political stalemate that has paralyzed the country.
The anniversary rally also meant to send a message to Syria to stay out of Lebanese politics. Billboards on major highways called for supporters to attend: "Come down, so they don't come back."
Hariri's supporters blame Syria for killing the prominent politician in a massive suicide truck bombing in Beirut three years ago and for a series of bombings and assassinations since. Hariri's assassination ignited mass protests and international pressure that forced Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon after 29 years of control.
But statements from government coalition leaders offering condolences in the wake of Mughniyeh's killing indicated that majority leaders were toning down their sharp rhetoric, dominant in recent days, so as not to further inflame tensions with the opposition.
Authorities deployed some 8,000 troops and policemen to protect the Hariri rally and leading roads. Armored carriers took up positions on major intersections, and additional razor wire was brought in to separate the two sides on rain-drenched streets.
The U.S. Embassy encouraged American citizens in Lebanon to limit all but essential travel Thursday. Across Beirut, businesses and shops put off popular Valentine's Day celebrations for later in the week.
Mughniyeh's body was brought to south Beirut from Syria on Wednesday and laid in a refrigerated coffin, wrapped in Hezbollah's yellow flag.
His father — Fayez, a south Lebanese farmer — as well as Hezbollah's deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassem, and other Hezbollah officials received condolences inside a hall from allied Lebanese politicians and representatives of militant Palestinian factions.
Mughniyeh was also on the FBI's list of most wanted terrorists, and the State Department had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest or conviction.
Besides his suspected role in the Marine barrack and embassy compound attacks, he was indicted in the U.S. for his role in planning the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed.
A string of kidnappings he was believed to have directed included taking captive the AP's chief Mideast correspondent, Anderson, who was held for more than six years until his release in 1991, and CIA station chief William Buckley, who was tortured by his captors and killed in 1985.
Israel accused Mughniyeh of involvement in the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, attacks that killed more than 100 people.
He vanished in the early 1990s, reportedly undergoing plastic surgery and moving between Lebanon, Syria and Iran on fake passports.