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(AP) - Senior Hezbollah commander Hassan al-Laqis was assassinated early Wednesday in southern Beirut _ a sharp blow to the Iranian-backed Shiite group. Hezbollah has no shortage of rivals eager to strike at its strongholds and leadership:
_ ISRAEL: Hezbollah quickly blamed Israel for al-Laqis' assassination, saying it had tried to kill him several times already. Israeli officials denied the accusations. Still, the Jewish state 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 a senior figure.
Enmity runs deep between Israel and Hezbollah. The Lebanese group waged an insurgency against the nearly 20-year Israeli military occupation of southern Lebanon before Israel withdrew in 2000. The Israelis have killed _ or have been suspected of killing _ high-ranking Hezbollah figures for decades. In 1992, Israeli helicopter gunships ambushed the motorcade of Hezbollah leader Sheik Abbas Musawi, killing him, his wife, his son and four bodyguards. Eight years earlier, Hezbollah leader Sheik Ragheb Harb was killed in south Lebanon. But one of the biggest blows came in 2008 when Imad Mughniyeh, a top Hezbollah commander, was killed by a bombing in Damascus.
_ SAUDI ARABIA: Al-Laqis' killing came shortly after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, speaking to a TV station, accused Saudi Arabia of being behind the Nov. 19 suicide bombings at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. He indirectly blamed an alliance between Iran rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia for trying to strike at Hezbollah, which is Tehran's proxy in Lebanon. The allegations spotlighted the Syrian civil war's sectarian overtones and regional impact. Riyadh backs the predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria, while regional Shiite power Iran and Hezbollah support Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose regime is stacked with members of his heterodox sect of Shiite Islam. Saudi Arabia fears what it sees as Iran trying to spread its influence across the Arab world. Under this thinking, a Saudi strike against Hezbollah would be a blow to Iran and its regional ambitions. The kingdom does not however have a known history of sponsoring assassinations.
_ AL-QAIDA-LINKED GROUPS: Sunni extremists linked to al-Qaida are staunch opponents of Hezbollah. One such Lebanese group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, claimed responsibility for the Iranian Embassy attack and said more would follow unless Hezbollah withdrew its fighters from Syria. Extremists and al-Qaida-affiliated factions increasingly dominate the messy mosaic of Syrian rebels. Al-Qaida fighters, whose extreme interpretation of Islam considers Shiites to be apostates whose blood may be shed, have attacked Shiites elsewhere, particularly Iraq, in the past decade. Al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria have proven to be among the most effective in fighting Assad, and they have claimed responsibility for most of the suicide bombings in the war.
_ SYRIAN REBELS: Syrian rebels have been threatening Hezbollah since the group sent fighters to Syria. Two previously unknown Sunni groups claimed responsibility for al-Laqis' assassination, although the claims could not be verified. Since Hezbollah's intervention in Syria began, its strongholds have been targeted by rockets and car bombings in apparent retaliation.
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