Deadly blasts in Lebanon linked to Syrian war, sectarian divisions

The Washington Post

The debris-strewn, bloodstained street outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut lay as mute testimony of another dark day in Lebanon on Tuesday, when nearly two dozen people were killed in a double suicide bombing, the latest in a string of sectarian attacks to blight the country.

The first bomber, on a motorcycle, blew up at a checkpoint just yards from the embassy in the Bir Hasan area of the capital, according to security officials and the army. The blast drew residents out onto the street or to their balconies, exposing them to the more powerful car-bomb explosion that came minutes later.

By day’s end, the death toll from the twin suicide bombing stood at 23, with 147 people injured, according to the Health Ministry. Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) confirmed that the country’s cultural attache, Ibrahim Ansari, was among the dead.

The long-running Syrian civil war has inflamed sectarian tensions across the region, as a largely Sunni insurgency backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar battles to oust President Bashar Assad, who has received support from Shiite fighters from Iran and Iran’s ally the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

In Lebanon, where political divisions mirror those over the border, tit-for-tat bombings have killed scores in both Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods this year, even as the fragile country struggles to insulate itself from the violence.

The Abdullah Azzam Brigade, the al-Qaida-linked Sunni militant group that claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack, made clear the Syrian war was the motive, demanding that Hezbollah pull out its fighters.

“The attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut was a twin martyrdom operation by two heroes of the Sunni in Lebanon,” said Sheik Sirajeddine Zuraiqat, a cleric affiliated with the group, in a message posted on Twitter.

Majid bin Muhammad al-Majid, the Azzam Brigade’s leader, called in August for Sunnis in Lebanon and Syria to unite against Hezbollah, which he described as the “party of Iran.” The group has claimed responsibility for firing rockets at Israel in the past.

Outside the embassy on Tuesday, forensic teams in white overalls picked through the evidence beyond a security cordon. Smoldering cars lined the street, its trees scorched by fire.

Black-shirted armed gunmen affiliated with the Amal political party, an ally of Hezbollah, patrolled the largely Shiite neighborhood. In a statement, the party described the attack as a “spiteful act” that had targeted innocent civilians.

Rabih Istanbuli, 36, stood on the blood-spattered steps of the furniture store he manages. He was in his office, 100 meters away, when the first blast hit, an explosion the army said was caused by an 5-kg bomb.

The second — involving 50 kg of explosives in a jeep — occurred minutes later as he ran to check on his shop.

“The glass just surrounded me,” Istanbuli said of that moment. “I saw some people falling down from their balconies because when they heard the first bomb, they went out. . . . There were a lot of dead people, black from the fire.”

A 23-year-old student who lives less than 100 meters from the blast site said she was in the kitchen when she heard the first explosion about 10 a.m.

The student, who agreed to be identified only by her first name, Hiba, said she ran to her balcony but was called back in by her maid, saving her from bearing the brunt of the second detonation, which blew in her windows.

Shattered glass covering her living-room floor.

“The political situation is going into a dark tunnel,” said Hiba’s uncle, Ibrahim al-Hajj, who had called in to check on his niece.

Lebanon still has no government since collapsing in March, and planned elections have been postponed amid wrangling over electoral laws.

“There is no state,” said Jad Kobeissi, a 36-year-old dentist who lives a block from the embassy.

Few residents voiced doubt that the blast was linked to the conflict in Syria. “I was worried one day something like this would happen,” Kobeissi said. “The embassy is an obvious target.”

However, some Lebanese politicians and the Iranian Foreign Ministry were quick to blame Israel, despite the Azzam Brigade’s claim of responsibility.

“The terrorist bombing in front of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut is an inhuman and vicious act perpetrated by Israel and its terror agents,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham told IRNA.

Hezbollah also pointed a finger at its longtime enemy. Mohammad Raad, head of the group’s parliamentary bloc, said the attack echoed “the racist pattern of the Zionist enemy.”

But a close adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu linked the bombing to Hezbollah’s role in Syria. “Israeli security gains nothing from bloodshed,” said Tzachi Hanegbi, a lawmaker and former intelligence minister. “I think it is a result of the tension in Lebanon following the decision by Hezbollah — or Iran forcing Hezbollah — to participate in Assad’s efforts to survive in Syria.”

The bombing was not the first in a Shiite area of Beirut. In August, an explosion in Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern suburbs killed at least 21 people. That was followed eight days later by what was seen as a retaliatory attack on two Sunni mosques in the northern city of Tripoli, which killed more than two dozen.

Hezbollah had braced for a further attack, imposing tight security during the Shiite festival of Ashura last week, where the group’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, made a rare appearance — and pledged to continue backing Assad in Syria.

Lebanese politicians condemned Tuesday’s bombings. “There is division in the country and tension, which is not helping in reducing the impact of the Syrian war on us,” lawmaker Alan Aoun told the MTV television station at the scene. “It’s causing problems, both socially and politically.”

At a snack shop and supermarket near the blast site, sales assistants wept as they served customers.

“This is too much, it’s devastating,” said Hanadi Nahhas, a 30-year-old employee. “The second bomb was so loud we thought it was an Israeli airstrike. Our delivery boy, Mohammed, was killed — he is just 16.”