A car bomb exploded in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut today in a further indication that Syria’s civil war is bleeding across the border into Lebanon and stoking already strained relations between Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites.
More than 50 people were wounded when the bomb packed inside a Renault Rapide van exploded mid-morning in the bustling Bir al-Abed neighborhood of southern Beirut. While the attack was roundly condemned across the political spectrum in Lebanon and there was no immediate claim of responsibility, some Hezbollah opponents insinuated that it was a result of the Shiite group's role in Syria, fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad's regime against the rebels.
Saad Hariri, a Sunni leader and former Lebanese prime minister, urged Lebanese to avoid "being lured into wars that will only bring more schism to Lebanon."
The bomb – estimated by Hezbollah sources at 66 pounds of explosive – smashed glass for several blocks and cracked walls in nearby tower blocks. The explosion, which was heard across much of Beirut, set alight several vehicles and sent thick black clouds of smoke billowing into the air.
"I was on my way to work when I heard a loud explosion in the next street," says Ali Qanso, owner of a cafe. "We knew this was coming. We expect more bombs. We are in a war."
Hezbollah gunmen and Lebanese troops quickly cordoned off the scene while firemen doused the flames and police prepared to examine the six-foot-deep crater. Curious sightseers stepped gingerly across the slippery carpet of shattered glass on the pavements and streets.
“A return to such acts is a reminder of the black days experienced by the Lebanese in the past,” Michel Suleiman, the Lebanese president, said in a statement.
Ali Ammar, a Hezbollah parliamentarian, said that the bombing was conducted by supporters of the “American-Zionist project.” He said the attack bore ”Israeli fingerprints.”
It is the first car bombing in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut since 2004, when a Hezbollah military official was killed in an attack believed to have been carried out by Israel.
Beirut’s southern suburbs are densely populated and consist of tall apartment blocks and narrow streets often teeming with pedestrians. But the placing of the bomb in a relatively large car park off the main road rather than parking it on the side of a busy street may have been an attempt by the perpetrators to minimize casualties. Local Hezbollah men on the scene of the blast theorized initially that the bomb was intended to serve as a warning rather than to reap a large number of casualties. There were no fatalities and the majority of injuries were from flying glass.
On the other hand, a well-placed security source said that a second car bomb was discovered in the vicinity of the explosion and was safely defused by the Lebanese army. It was not possible to immediately corroborate the information, but if confirmed it would suggest the first bomb may have been intended to draw a crowd which would then have fallen victim to a second car bomb.
Anticipation of a car bomb attack in southern Beirut has been running high for months. At night, Hezbollah personnel routinely mount small checkpoints to monitor traffic, and patrol the streets in the early hours of the morning with bomb-sniffing dogs. Hezbollah also conducted a census last year of all Syrians living in southern Beirut, checking their identities, places of employment, home addresses in Beirut, and where they live in Syria.
Preserving the 'axis of resistance'
Hezbollah’s combat role in Syria burst into the open in May, when the party led a 17-day assault against the rebel-held town of Qusayr five miles north of the border with Lebanon. Since the town was taken on June 5, Hezbollah has deployed alongside Syrian troops in Homs and areas near Damascus.
The Assad regime is a key ally of Hezbollah and Iran, forging an “axis of resistance” to confront Western and Israeli interests in the Middle East. Hezbollah justifies its intervention in Syria on the basis that Israel and the West are using radical Sunni militants to topple the Assad regime and weaken the partnership. Hezbollah’s leadership has warned that if Assad falls, Lebanon would be at risk from “Takfiri” Sunni militants who view as apostates anyone that does not share their austere interpretation of Islam.
Still, Hezbollah’s role in Syria has stirred tensions in Lebanon, much more so than the hundreds of Lebanese Sunnis who have joined the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or actively support the rebels in a logistical capacity. Lebanese Sunni resentment against Hezbollah has been on the rise for several years due to the Shiite party's political influence, backed by its formidable military might. That resentment has been greatly exacerbated by the sectarian dynamics of the Syrian civil war.
The FSA has condemned Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria and repeatedly threatened to attack the party in Lebanon. Although Louay Mokdad, a spokesman for the FSA, told Lebanon’s An Nahar newspaper that the rebels condemned the Bir al-Abed car bomb explosion, he also said that the Assad regime and Hezbollah leadership were “directly or indirectly” responsible.
Mainly Sunni opponents of Hezbollah also argue that by taking a role in Syria, Hezbollah risks allowing the Syrian conflict to spread into Lebanon. Syrian rebel groups have repeatedly fired rockets into Shiite-populated areas of the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon as recently as yesterday, when two Katyusha rockets struck an area near the town of Hermel. Suspected Hezbollah militants also have been targeted by roadside bombs in at least three separate incidents in the Bekaa Valley and earlier this week, two Lebanese soldiers were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded while they were investigating an earlier blast that was thought to have targeted a Hezbollah vehicle.