A car bomb shook downtown Beirut today, killing former Finance Minister Mohamad Chatah and five other people, underscoring how the fallout from Syria’s civil war is deepening divisions in neighboring Lebanon.
Fifty more were wounded when the bomb, rigged with about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of explosives packed inside a stolen Honda, detonated around 9:45 a.m. local time, the state-run National News Agency reported. Chatah, 62, a member of the Western-backed March 14 coalition, was traveling to meet people in the group when the attack occurred.
The strike was the first to target a member of the March 14 organization since a wave of explosions began shaking Lebanon in July. Most of the assaults have targeted Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group, a member of the rival March 8 alliance that has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“This comes in the context of the Sunni-Shiite conflict triggered by the war in Syria,” Sami Nader, a professor of international relations at Beirut’s St. Joseph University, said in a telephone interview. This blast was a “direct message to the moderate Sunnis in Lebanon and their Saudi supporters,” he said.
News of the death of Chatah, an adviser to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was posted on March 14’s official website.
Security officials and forensic experts inspected the scene of the blast in an area of Beirut that houses the Parliament building, government headquarters, banks and Hariri’s house, where the March 14 coalition was set to meet. Hariri has been living abroad for security reasons.
The attack occurred amid deep divisions in Lebanon over the war in Syria, pitting mostly Sunni rebels against Assad, who is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. March 14, a coalition of several parties including the mostly Sunni Muslim Future Movement, supports the opposition while the March 8 alliance, which includes Iran-backed Hezbollah, supports Assad.
Hours after Chatah’s assassination, gunmen took to the streets of his hometown, the northern city of Tripoli, firing in the air and blocking some roads, NNA said. Tripoli has seen multiple confrontations between Assad supporters and opponents.
In his last statement on Twitter, posted shortly before today’s blast, Chatah, a Sunni Muslim, wrote that Hezbollah “is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security & foreign policy” that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years.
Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, with a stronghold in southern Lebanon, receives support from Iran. The group has sent fighters to support Assad’s army in Syria.
“This ugly crime comes in the framework of the crimes and bombings that aim at destroying the country,” Hezbollah said in an e-mailed statement. The group “strongly condemns” the bombing that led to Chatah’s death, it said.
Iran, whose Beirut embassy was targeted by twin blasts last month, alleged today’s attack carried “fingerprints of the Zionist enemy,” the Islamic Republic’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ghzanfar Asl Roknabadi, told Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV today in an interview.
Violence has surged in Lebanon in the six months since Hezbollah acknowledged joining Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war. Attackers have targeted Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley while twin explosions also ripped through Sunni Muslim mosques in the northern city of Tripoli.
Chatah’s assassination came two weeks before the U.N.- backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon begins the trial of Hezbollah suspects over the 2005 killing of Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The tribunal will also look into the deaths of several Rafik Hariri supporters who were killed after his assassination.
“The murderer is the same one, killing the Syrians and the Lebanese,” Hariri said in a statement e-mailed by his office in a reference to the Assad government. “This is a message of terror to Lebanon.” The same accusation was made by other March 14 officials.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi dismissed accusations that his country is behind the attack, saying they are based on “political grudges,” Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said.
Chatah spent years learning and working in the U.S., according to his resume. In 1983 he received a doctorate in economics from the University of Texas. From 1997 to 1999 he was Lebanon’s ambassador to Washington. A former adviser to the International Monetary Fund, Chatah was married and had two children.