BEIRUT, Lebanon — Thousands of Shiite Muslims filled the rundown streets of south Beirut on Thursday to mourn Imad Mughniyeh, a man they hailed as the consummate guerrilla warrior for his role in attacks that killed hundreds of Americans and made him one of the world's most wanted terrorist suspects.
Grieving followers wept noisily, tossed rose petals at Mughniyeh's coffin and eulogized him as a cunning commander whose bloody campaign of hijackings and bombings began in the 1980s, when U.S. troops were stationed in Beirut and Israel occupied a large swath of southern Lebanon.
Supporters cheered when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah blamed Israel for Mughniyeh's death in a car bombing in Syria on Tuesday and vowed a borderless war of revenge. Israel immediately put its embassies and Jewish institutions overseas on high alert in case of retaliatory attacks.
"With this murder, its timing, location and method — Zionists, if you want this kind of open war, let the whole world listen: Let this war be open," Nasrallah said in a video that was broadcast at the memorial service.
Mughniyeh's coffin was draped in a yellow Hezbollah flag. Turbaned clerics, black-clad housewives and teenagers in jeans all jostled for a glimpse as an honor guard carried the coffin out of the overflowing hall and into the jam-packed streets of Beirut's southern suburbs.
Mughniyeh, who's blamed for the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the Marine headquarters at Beirut airport, the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight and other attacks, played a key role in Hezbollah's operations, though precise details are scarce, especially during recent years.
The many titles ascribed to him included Hezbollah's head of intelligence, commander of its military wing and liaison to Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's closest allies. The Iranian foreign minister attended the service and offered Mughniyeh's family condolences on behalf of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
At several points, the somber ceremony turned fiery as tears that flowed for Mughniyeh gave way to torrents of emotion over the broader Lebanese political crisis.
"We blame Israel, America and their supporters here in Lebanon for this death," said a distraught 45-year-old mother who gave her name only as Umm Ahmed. "But it's going to be all right. Seyyid Hassan (Nasrallah) will crush them all under his feet."
Since November, Lebanon has been without a president because of a power struggle between the Western-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition. Sectarian tensions are climbing to levels unseen since the days of the devastating 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. With frequent bombings and pervasive fear, the fragile patchwork of Lebanon's Shiite, Sunni, Christian and Druze society is unraveling, and no one appears able — or willing — to reverse the damage.
"The slightest provocation by either side... could lead to a major encounter because both sides are charged," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut.
As Hezbollah supporters bade farewell to their icon, the group's political opponents gathered on the other side of town to remember their martyr, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed three years ago in much the same manner as Mughniyeh was: a mysterious bombing with no claims of responsibility.
Tens of thousands of pro-government Lebanese trudged through pouring rain and chilly winds to commemorate Hariri's death with a rally in Beirut's Martyrs' Square, which Hariri rebuilt after the civil war. Prominent Sunni and Maronite Christian politicians gave speeches urging national reconciliation.
But the age-old sectarian fault lines showed themselves in unscripted moments.
Some Christians carried the banner of the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing political party and former militia. "God be with the Sunnis!" other demonstrators shouted from a car headed toward the event. Sunnis and Christians both expressed scorn for the Shiites, although their jabs were carefully worded to aim at Iran.
The tenor of the two memorials spoke to the widening chasm.
Despite the downpour, the rally for Hariri was festive and upbeat, with a marching band and spontaneous chants from the crowd against Syria, Iran and the Lebanese opposition movement. Upscale cafes, trendy restaurants and Western retailers near Martyrs' Square were closed in honor of Hariri.
In the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs, a funereal atmosphere prevailed. Most women wore flowing black robes. Men shouted their eagerness to follow Mughniyeh into martyrdom. Onlookers watched his coffin's procession from the crumbling balconies of apartment buildings that were still marked by Israeli airstrikes from the war of summer 2006.
"The description `two worlds' is accurate. Today's pictures showed a divided country," said a senior Lebanese government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities. "But that doesn't mean that both sides want it to be permanent. Both sides want to make sure that, first, this political crisis shouldn't push the country to violence. Secondly, both are trying to find ways out of it."
(McClatchy special correspondent Miret el Naggar contributed.)