By Diaa Hadid and Hussein Malla
BEIRUT – Two suicide bombers detonated explosions outside the Iranian Embassy in a mainly Shiite district of the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, killing 23 people, including the Iranian cultural attachi, apparently in retaliation for the Lebanese group Hezbollah’s support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The bombings appeared to be another strike in an intensifying proxy battle over Syria’s civil war that is rattling its smaller neighbor Lebanon. An al-Qaida-linked Sunni extremist group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying more would follow unless the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah withdraws fighters that have helped Assad’s military score key victories over Syrian rebels.
The midmorning blasts hit the upscale neighborhood of Janah, a Hezbollah stronghold, leaving bodies and pools of blood on the glass-strewn street amid burning cars. More than 140 people were wounded, officials said.
A Lebanese security official said the first suicide attacker was on a motorcycle that carried two kilograms (4.4 pounds) of explosives. He blew himself up at the large black main gate of the Iranian mission, damaging the three-story facility, the official said.
Less than two minutes later, a second suicide attacker driving a car rigged with 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of explosives struck about 10 meters (yards) away, the official said. He spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The bombing was one of the deadliest in a string of attacks that have targeted Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon in recent months in a campaign of retaliation by Sunni radicals over its backing of Assad in Syria’s bloody conflict, now in its third year.
In recent weeks, Hezbollah fighters have backed Assad’s troops in a series of victories over rebels, taking back a string of rebel-held towns in Syria. Shiite Iran is the main Mideast backer of Assad’s government, believed to be providing it with key financing and weapons.
Senior Hezbollah official Mahmoud Komati told reporters at the scene that the attacks were a direct result of the “successive defeats suffered by (extremists) in Syria.”
He described the blasts as a “message of blood and death” to Iran and Hezbollah for standing by Syria, vowing they would not alter their position.
Lebanon’s sectarian divisions have been inflamed by the war next door. Lebanese Sunnis largely back the rebellion and Shiites largely support Assad — and the tensions have repeated flared into clashes and bloodshed in Lebanon.
Iran’s Foreign Minister blamed Israel for the attacks. Hezbollah and Syrian officials indirectly blamed Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Arab kingdom that along with fellow Gulf nation Qatar has been a major backer of Syria’s rebels.
“Each of the terrorist attacks that strike in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq reek of petrodollars,” a Syrian government statement said, in a clear reference to oil-rich Gulf Arab countries.