Beirut bomb warning shot for U.S. Lebanon policy

BEIRUT – The first attack on the United States in Beirut in two decades was a warning shot against its policy in Lebanon, where it backs anti-Syrian leaders against rivals supported by Damascus and Tehran.

Analysts said the car bomb attack on a U.S. embassy vehicle on Tuesday seemed designed to intimidate the United States in Lebanon, where its embassy, troops and diplomats were targets during the 1975-90 civil war.

Neither Washington or its allies in the Beirut governing coalition have named any suspects in the attack, which killed three people. Neither of the two people who were in the U.S. armored diplomatic car were killed .

“This is definitely a message,” said Lebanese analyst Oussama Safa. The attack appeared designed not to kill any senior U.S. embassy personnel but was “a reminder of who is able to touch the untouchable”, he said.

The support of the United States, its Arab allies and European countries including France has been vital to the anti-Syrian coalition which is locked in a bitter conflict with the Hezbollah-led opposition.

The crisis has left Lebanon without a president since November with both parties refusing to make concessions.

The governing coalition’s problems have been compounded by a series of assassinations which have killed anti-Syrian figures including four of its MPs. Damascus has denied any role.

During his tour of the region, President George W. Bush said this week that Syria and Iran must stop what he called their interference in Lebanon — held up as a success story by Washington after Syrian troops were forced to withdraw in 2005.

Bush did not mention the attack, which was condemned by the Iran- and Syria-backed Hezbollah.

“It was the first direct warning to the Americans,” Lebanese columnist Sateh Noureddin told Reuters. “Based on our history with the Americans, Washington will decide to pull out from Lebanon as it did in the 1980s.

“Washington does not have troops in Lebanon as it did then, but I expect a U.S. political retreat,” he said.

Washington responded to the attack by saying it could not be intimidated.

TAKING SIDES

“To the degree that there is any thought of intimidation in an attack of this kind, the United States will of course not be deterred in its efforts to help the Lebanese people, to help the democratic forces in Lebanon, to help Lebanon resist foreign interference in their affairs,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

Nadim Shehadi of London’s Chatham House said the bombing could strengthen rather than erode U.S. resolve. “U.S. policy in Lebanon has broad Arab support, broad European support and broad U.N. support,” he said.

But that foreign backing has been unable to make up for what analysts see as the anti-Syrian coalition’s fundamental weakness vis-a-vis Hezbollah, which is both an armed group and an influential Shi’ite political party.

“The United States has taken sides, but I don’t know how it can help,” said Jihad al-Khazen, a columnist with al-Hayat Arabic newspaper. “The other side is much stronger.”

The anti-Syrian coalition made what was widely seen as a concession to the opposition in backing the candidacy of army chief General Michel Suleiman for the presidency.

But the post has been empty since November. Suleiman’s confirmation by parliament has been repeatedly delayed by a dispute over the distribution of seats in a new government to take office once he is elected.

The Arab League is now trying to forge a deal along the lines of an initiative agreed by Arab states, including Syria and Saudi Arabia — another sponsor of the governing coalition.

But poor ties between Damascus and Riyadh, tensions between the United States, Iran and Syria and the Lebanese leaders’ own bitter divisions make it hard for some to see an imminent end to the standoff.

“I can’t see a way forward,” Khazen said.

Noureddin added: “The Americans are encouraging the majority and the Syrians are encouraging the opposition and the whole country is stuck in the middle.”

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