Nasrallah: I will go fight in Syria myself
BEIRUT // Hizbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah struck a defiant tone yesterday and said he was ready go to Syria to fight after a car bomb targeting the Lebanese Shiite group killed 24 people in Beirut.
A militant Sunni group claimed responsibility for the bombing in the neighbourhood of Bir Al Abed where Hizbollah has a strong presence.
The Brigades of Aisha said the attack was a retaliatory measure against Hizbollah's support for the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria. The attack was the latest example of Syria's war spilling into Lebanon.
In a speech broadcast on television as Lebanon held a day of mourning for the victims of the car bomb, Mr Nasrallah vowed to take the fight to Sunni rebels fighting to overthrow Mr Al Assad.
"I will go myself to Syria if it is so necessary in the battle ... Hizbollah and I will go to Syria."
Mr Nasrallah also described the attack as a "terrorist" attack against the Lebanese people.
"We call for mercy for the souls of the martyrs of the terrorist explosion in the southern suburb of Beirut," he said in a speech commemorating the end of the 2006 war against Israel.
Authorities said they were investigating whether the bombing was a suicide attack, a possibility that brought up memories of Lebanon's ravaging 1975-1990 civil war.
Observers immediately linked the bombing to the civil war in Syria, where Hizbollah has backed the Alawite regime of Mr Al Assad in what Mr Nasrallah has described as a battle against a western-backed conspiracy to weaken the "axis of resistance" against Israel. Hizbollah fighters have joined Syrian army troops in fighting the rebels, which led to threats of retaliation from Sunni rebel groups.
A car bomb was set off in the same neighbourhood as Thursday's attack just a month ago in an apparent "warning" shot. Fifty people were injured in that attack, but none were killed.
Soon after Thursday's bombing, the Brigades of Aisha, Mother of the Believers, said it was behind the attack and referred to it as a "second" message, suggesting the group was responsible for an earlier bombing as well.
"Nasrallah is an agent for Iran and Israel and we promise more for him," the group said in a video.
Thursday's bombing was the worst attack since the Valentine's Day assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005, who was killed along with 21 others in a car bombing that transformed politics in Lebanon and led to the withdrawal of Syria from the country.
Analysts said they were not surprised by the latest bombing, only that it took so long to happen. The Syrian conflict had already begun spilling over into Lebanon, with sectarian fighting sporadically breaking out across the country since the Syrian conflict began.
"The threats against Hizbollah were being made all the time," said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. "If you look at the pattern of events over the past year, you can see that things are escalating very quickly."
The risk, Professor Khashan said, was that continued attacks on Hizbollah-controlled areas would inspire so much anger among Shiites that Mr Nasrallah would be unable to stop individuals from carrying out their own attacks on Sunni groups in Lebanon.
"Hizbollah is going out of its way to keep things under control and trying to keep the Shiite community on a tight leash," he said. "The question is, if such explosions continue, can Hizbollah keep control of its constituency. If not, there will be serious Sunni-Shia strife in Lebanon that would weaken Hizbollah considerably."
Pressure was also mounting on Lebanese security forces and Hizbollah to uncover the identity of the assailants, said Timur Goksel, a former political adviser to United Nations peacekeepers in Lebanon.
"Unless you can find out who did this, you can't fight anyone," he said. "Until that time there is not much they can do. That's why you are not hearing very much from Hizbollah. They can't do anything about it yet."
Updated: August 17, 2013 04:00 AM