- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Al Qaeda’s franchise in Lebanon claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings in the capital, Beirut, on Wednesday, and said the attack was in response to the role of Iran-backed Hezbollah militants in the war in Syria.

At least six people were killed and more than 120 injured in the attack outside an Iranian cultural center in the Lebanese capital.

The Abdallah Azzam Brigades warned that it would keep up its violent campaign against Iranian interests until the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah withdraws its fighters from Syria.

“We will continue 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 Abdallah Azzam Brigades said on Twitter.

Hezbollah militants are fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in a war that has dragged on for nearly three years.

“There is every reason to take at face value the statement by the Abdallah Azzam Brigades claiming responsibility for the bombing,” said Paul Pillar, a CIA veteran and researcher at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, condemned “in the strongest possible terms today’s terrorist bombing in the Bir el-Hassan neighborhood of Beirut,” State Department spokesman Marie Harf said.

The State Department designated the Abdallah Azzam Brigades as a foreign terrorist group in May 2012. The group has mostly fired rockets across Lebanon’s border into Israel.

Lebanese authorities in January arrested Majid al-Majid, a Saudi citizen and commander of the Abdallah Azzam Brigades. He died in a military hospital in Beirut after suffering from kidney failure.

Two cars packed with explosives were used in the morning rush-hour attack on Wednesday. The Abdallah Azzam Brigades took responsibility for a similar twin suicide bombing near the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in November that killed 23 people, including Iran’s cultural attache.

Wednesday’s bombings came four days after Lebanon’s new prime minister, Tammam Salam, announced the formation of a Cabinet, ending a nearly 11-month political standoff. The Cabinet includes members of the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition that is backed by Syria and Iran, and the March 14 coalition, which is backed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

Ms. Harf said the Obama administration stands firmly with the new government, the Lebanese people, the Lebanese armed forces and the internal security forces as they combat terrorism.

“This wave of terrorism threatens the principles of stability, freedom and safety that the people of Lebanon have worked so hard to uphold, and we urge all parties to refrain from retaliatory acts that contribute to the cycle of violence,” she said.

Sectarian tensions in Lebanon have been exacerbated by the war in Syria. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s decision to send thousands of his militants to fight alongside Mr. Assad’s army against the mainly Sunni rebels has created what some analysts and Lebanese officials describe as an existential threat for Lebanon.

Allies of the Syrian rebels have responded to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria by claiming the right to attack the Shiite group in its strongholds inside Lebanon.

Mr. Nasrallah has said Hezbollah will never bow to demands by “extremists” that its fighters withdraw from Syria.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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