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Dubai's new business: international intrigue

The glitzy city on the Gulf has become a kind of Arabian Big Easy where a senior political operative can be assassinated in a five-star hotel.

Dubai, which would prefer to be famous as a playground for the rich, has lately become a center of international intrigue. Last year, a former Chechen general and opponent of the republic’s Moscow-backed regime was shot dead in the parking garage of the upscale residential compound where he lived. Two suspects, an Iranian and a Tajik national, are in custody.

The city’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell notion of banking regulation made it a money laundering haven that allegedly serviced the needs of Russian mobsters, Somali pirates and Al Qaeda terrorists. After 9/11, local authorities tightened financial reporting laws, but plenty of shady types still linger in the shadows.

Al-Mabhouh has been described as a key operative in the pipeline that smuggles weapons provided by Iran into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. It did not take long for speculation to surface that al-Mabhouh was in Dubai, where many Iranian banks do business, to close an arms deal.

Hamas quickly pointed the finger at Israel.

"We in Hamas hold the Zionist enemy responsible for the criminal assassination of our brother, and we pledge to God and to the blood of the martyrs and to our people to continue his path of jihad and martyrdom," said a statement on Hamas' website. The group vowed to "retaliate for this Zionist crime at the appropriate time and place."

Israel has a long memory and a long history of “targeted assassinations.” The Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, has an impressive record of infiltrating assassination teams into Arab capitals. It would hardly be surprising for al-Mabhouh to be on the agency’s hit list.

The 50-year-old Palestinian was one of the founders of Hamas’ Izz el-Deen al-Qassam brigade, and the Israelis hold him responsible for the 1989 abduction and murder of two Israeli soldiers during the first intifada. In retaliation, Israeli authorities demolished the family’s home in Gaza.

Al-Mabhouh has lived in exile in Damascus for years. His family says he has been the target of several Israeli assassination attempts.

Israel had no immediate comment on the al-Mabhouh killing.