Iranian Cultural Attache Killed In Beirut Blasts

A car bomb at the Iranian embassy in southern Beirut killed two dozen people and highlighted the spillover tensions from the civil war in Syria next door. Steve Inskeep talks to Anne Barnard, the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two car bombs exploded in Beirut, Lebanon today. They exploded near the embassy of Iran in that city. The roughly two dozens dead include Iran's cultural attaché, we're told. The bombings draw attention for their violence, for their apparent target, Iran, and for the location. Lebanon is next door to Syria where Iran is deeply involved in a civil war supporting the government of President Bashar al Assad.

Let's go next to the New York Times Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard. She's on the line from there. Hi, Anne.

ANNE BARNARD: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What was the attack like?

BARNARD: Well, there were two explosions. Witnesses at the scene, where my colleague has been this morning, said that there was a smaller explosion after a motorbike apparently was stopped from entering the embassy and then a larger explosion that seemed to be in a booby-trapped car. And there was flames coming from parked cars, people injured and killed on the ground, and several residential buildings damaged.

INSKEEP: I guess if those descriptions are accurate this is one of those signs of a rather sophisticated attack, right? You have an initial explosion that causes chaos and then the big explosion that may kill people even as they're rushing to help.

BARNARD: Yes. There are some reports, which we haven't confirmed, that the second explosion actually targeted the responders.

INSKEEP: OK. So this happened at the Iranian embassy in Beirut. This is in - what kind of an area of Beirut is this in?

BARNARD: This is an area where there are a lot of embassies and organizations. There are a lot of Shiite residents there and some people felt that the area was being targeted because of the involvement of Hezbollah in the civil war in Syria. Hezbollah was quick to accuse Israel, which it has blamed for collaborating with Syrian rebels against Bashar al Assad.

INSKEEP: I feel the necessity to clear this up. You said Shiites. We're talking here about people who share a branch of Islam with Iran; Hezbollah, which is allied with Iran and is also allied with the government of Bashar al Assad. These are all connected and this is where the explosion took place - in a Shiite neighborhood, you're saying.

BARNARD: Yes. And you have a toxic mix of politics and sectarianism going on. The Iranian government and Hezbollah and Assad are aligned for political reasons but the war has taken on sectarian castes as it continues. And while politicians were trying to stand back from these allegations, people on the street reacted angrily, as if they were being targeted for being supposed supporters of Hezbollah, although they just live in this neighborhood.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should mention also there's been a claim of responsibility today from some group called the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which is described as a Lebanon-based al-Qaida affiliate, according to the Reuters News Service. If that kind of claim of responsibility proved to be true, which we don't know, that would be a Sunni Muslim group, correct?

BARNARD: Yes, that's right.

INSKEEP: And so do we have this possibility of deepening sectarian divides after a bombing like this?

BARNARD: Well, as always in Lebanon, everyone tries to avoid a general sectarian reaction. At the same time, my colleague was approached by a woman who was screaming and yelling, blaming the Saudi government and Prince Bandar, the intelligence chief who's seen as a strong supporter of the rebels in Syria. So this is the first thing that comes to people's minds, this mix of political and sectarian motives, regardless of what the leaders say.

INSKEEP: Anne Barnard of the New York Times. Thanks very much.

BARNARD: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She is the New York Times bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon where two explosions took place today outside the Iranian embassy. We're told about two dozen people were killed, including Iran's cultural attaché. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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