With Beirut bombing, Iran takes direct hit for helping Assad (+video)
Today's bombing on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut is the first attack in Lebanon to target Iran for its backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war.
Lebanese soldiers and militiamen stood among rubble and charredÂ vehicles outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut this morning, surveying the damage wrought by twoÂ explosions that killed at least 23, including Iran's cultural attachĂ© to Lebanon, and injured dozens more.
The explosions tore the balconies off nearby buildings and shattered windows blocks away. While hardly the first spillover from Syria's war, it was the first attack against an Iranian target.
â€śThis attack raised the bar and made the Iranians a direct target,â€ťÂ said Lebanese political analyst Kamel Wazne. â€śOnce you destroy theseÂ barriers, you open the gate for a very complicated game in the MiddleÂ East.â€ť
Iran has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with weapons, money,Â and political clout since the uprising in Syria started in March 2011.
Today's bombing is the latest in a string of attacks against ShiiteÂ targets in Beirut â€“ there were two attacks in the city's southernÂ suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, over the summer, one of which racked up the largest number of casualties since Lebanon's civil war. Â TheÂ Lebanese Shiite militant group, which is also backed byÂ Iran, has sent thousands of fighters into Syria to fight alongside theÂ regime.Â Shiites have hit back with their own attacks on Sunni areas.
Â Last week, as Shiite Muslims marked the holy day of Ashoura, HezbollahÂ leader Hassan Nasrallah reiterated his movementâ€™s commitment to Mr.
"On this day of Ashoura, I declare our commitment to the resistanceÂ with its readiness, its resources, its weapons," he told a crowd ofÂ supporters in his south Beirut stronghold. "As long as there is aÂ purpose for our presence there, we will remain [in Syria]."
The first blast went off aroundÂ 9:30 a.m.Â local time and was followed by a much larger explosion a few minutes later.
â€śThere was a first explosion. It was small. I thought maybe a tree fell. So I went to the balcony,â€ť said Heba, a young woman asking to use only her first name. â€śThen I went back to the kitchen and there was a second, larger blast.â€ť
The second blast blew out her windows and ripped through her apartment, pulling down parts of the ceiling, knocking over tables, and covering everything with shards of glass. In the building next door, the blast ripped off the balconies up to the fifth floor.
Across the street, Rabih Istanbuli says he saw bodies falling from theÂ buildings. After the first smaller blast, residents came to their windowsÂ and balconies to see what happened, only to be met with a larger second explosion.
â€śThe second bomb was there, at the entrance to the embassy,â€ť said Mr.Â Istanbuli, pointing to a blackened patch of earth in the middle of theÂ street.Â â€śAfter that there was a lot of shooting. I couldnâ€™t tell who it was.Â It was chaos. After 15 minutes there was a lot of guys with guns. Civilian guys with guns,â€ť he said. Â
The Lebanese Army blocked off the streets leading to the embassy.Â Well-armed members of the Amal movement, which controls the neighborhood, patrolled alongside the police and Army.
A relatively obscure Al Qaeda-linked group called the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility, citing Iranâ€™s support for the Syrian regime as the motivation. The United States designated the group a terrorist organization in 2012.
"It was a double martyrdom operation by two of the Sunni heroes ofÂ Lebanon," Sheikh Sirajeddine Zuraiqat, the group's religious guide,Â wrote on Twitter, according to Reuters. The Twitter account is widelyÂ believed to belong to him.
Writing in Arabic, he vowed future operations to drive Iran andÂ Hezbollah out of Syria and to put pressure on Lebanon to releaseÂ jihadis from prison.
Before that claim, Iran lobbed accusations at Israel. Iran's PressTVÂ reported that Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham called theÂ attack an â€ś'inhumane crime and a spiteful measure' by the ZionistÂ Israeli regime and its mercenaries."
After initial opposition gains in Syria, the regime and its alliesÂ have managed to turn the tide in their favor. In recent weeks regimeÂ forces and militias that support Assad retook some key transportationÂ routes and laid siege to rebel areas. Some speculate todayâ€™s attackÂ was retaliation from the opposition.
â€śItâ€™s [Assad's] new operations in Syria, in the mountains, and inÂ Qalamoun, that triggered the suicide attack in front of the embassy,â€ť said Mr. Wazne. â€śThe decision was made somewhere else. We need to know exactly who gave the order to carry out the attack.â€ť
Residents said they feel as if they are suffering for someone elseâ€™sÂ conflict as Syriaâ€™s civil war increasingly creeps across the borderÂ into Lebanon.
Jad Kobissi, a man who lives two blocks from the site of todayâ€™sÂ blast, worries itâ€™s a harbinger of things to come.
â€śSyria, everyone, is making their little war over there â€“ you have toÂ see Iran, Arab countries, Russia, America, France. Unfortunately, IÂ think the war is coming here,â€ť said Mr. Kobissi as he watched crewsÂ clearing the rubble from the streets of his neighborhood.