Suicide bombers in Beirut target Iranian cultural center

The spillover from a civil war in Syria continues to roil Lebanon, where a new government was formed over the weekend. Wednesday's blasts killed at least five people.

Hussein Malla/AP
Flames rise from burned cars at the site of an explosion, near the Iranian cultural center (r.) in the suburb of Beir Hassan, Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. A blast in a Shiite district in southern Beirut killed at least five people on Wednesday – the latest in a string of violent attacks linked to the war in Syria.

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Twin suicide bombings near an Iranian cultural center in Beirut today, the latest in a string of violent attacks linked to the war in Syria, underscore the challenge facing Lebanon’s new government. 

The Al Qaeda-linked Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility after two vehicles rigged with bombs exploded simultaneously during morning rush hour in a largely Shiite neighborhood. The blasts, which went off about 50 meters from an Iranian cultural center, killed at least five people and injured more than 100.

Blast walls were set up at the cultural center in anticipation of such an attack after the Iranian Embassy in Lebanon was targeted late last year, reports The Associated Press.

The militant group that claimed the attack said it was a response to Hezbollah and Iran's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to Reuters. Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite militant group, is backed by Iran, and the two have been critical allies of Mr. Assad. Al Qaeda and other militant Sunni groups in Lebanon back the Syrian rebels.

"We will continue – through the grace of God and his strength – to target Iran and its party in Lebanon (Hezbollah) in all of their security, political and military centers to achieve our two demands: One, the exit of all fighters from the Party of Iran in Syria. Two, the release of all our prisoners from oppressive Lebanese prisons," the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades said on Twitter. 

Wednesday's attacks come “just days after Lebanon announced a new coalition government, breaking 10 months of political stalemate,” reports The Los Angeles Times. The continued violence has tempered hopes that a more stable government could curb sectarian violence.

Prime Minister Tammam Salam formed a new cabinet over the weekend after almost a year of political deadlock. Mr. Salam said that today’s blasts were a message from terrorists trying to spread death and violence in his country.

"We got the message and we will respond to it with solidarity and our commitment to peace," Salam said.

Al Qaeda is not formally operating in Lebanon, writes The Christian Science Monitor’s Nicholas Blanford. However, the recurring attacks claimed by affiliate groups there over the past nine months has raised concerns that the terrorist group has enough support to expand its operations to Lebanon. 

“In 2006, [Sunni] people [in Lebanon] were not very interested in Al Qaeda, but now it has become a legend among the youth,” Sheikh Omar Bakri, a Salafist cleric, told the Monitor. “If Al Qaeda wants to move, there would be many people here who would support them.”

Lebanese Sunnis historically have avoided Islamist militancy and tend to favor mercantile enterprises in the coastal cities of Beirut, Tripoli, and Sidon over picking up a gun.

But Sunni discontent has risen in recent years at the growing influence in Lebanon of the powerful Hezbollah, a sentiment that has been further aggravated by the war in Syria where Hezbollah fighters battle rebel groups. In the poorer Sunni areas of Lebanon, such as the Bab Tebbaneh neighborhood in Tripoli, the black flag of Al Qaeda has become a common sight.

“We are softer than other [Salafists] because Lebanon is an open society. You cannot compare us to Iraqis or Afghans,” says Abu Bara’, a Sunni Salafist cleric and commander of a local militia in Bab Tebbaneh, using his nom de guerre. “But the reason [for increasing militancy among Lebanese Sunnis] is that the Sunnis feel under pressure because of the war in Syria and because of Hezbollah. We feel our backs are to the wall.”

Lebanon's proximity to Syria, and the steady stream of fighters and refugees moving across its border have led to Beirut becoming a “secondary front of the Syrian war,” The Los Angeles Times reports.

The ongoing string of bombings linked to the Syrian war has left Lebanon on edge and raised international concern about security in this strategically situated nation of 4 million, wedged between Syria and Israel along the Mediterranean. Lebanon is also home to more than one million refugees from war-ravaged Syria….

Lebanon is officially neutral in the Syrian war, but various Lebanese factions have lined up on different sides of the almost three-year-old conflict. The war has exacerbated tensions among Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite Muslim populations.

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