By RYAN LUCAS
FILE – In this August 2, 2013, file photo, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah speaks during a rally to mark Jerusalem day or Al-Quds day, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah said Wednesday Aug. 14 2013 that members of his party were behind last week’s bombing that wounded four Israeli soldiers. Last Wednesday, the Lebanese army said a group of Israeli soldiers crossed the border into Lebanon and were wounded in an explosion. The army said the force was 400 meters (yards) inside Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
BEIRUT (AP) — One of Lebanon’s most powerful Sunni politicians accused the leader of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah on Saturday of dragging the country further into neighboring Syria’s civil war.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s comments come two days after a deadly car bombing struck a Hezbollah neighborhood south of Beirut. Many people in Lebanon viewed the blast as retaliation for Hezbollah’s armed support for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
In a speech on Thursday, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah blamed Sunni extremists for the bombing and defiantly said he was prepared to double the number of his fighters in Syria if the bombing turns out to be linked to his group’s intervention there.
Hariri responded Saturday, saying Nasrallah’s address “did not break the cycle of tension” in the country but rather “drags Lebanon further into the Syrian fire, and it is a pity to squander the blood of Lebanese in such a way.”
In comments posted on his Twitter account and confirmed by his office, Hariri also said that Thursday’s bombing, which killed nearly two dozen people in the Hezbollah stronghold of Rweiss, was “surely an ugly crime, but Hezbollah’s war in Syria is a crime as well.”
Sectarian tensions have worsened dramatically in Lebanon since Hezbollah openly declared it was fighting alongside Assad’s troops to help crush a rebellion by Syria’s Sunni majority. Lebanese Sunnis support the rebels fighting to topple Assad, who is a member of a Shiite offshoot sect.
Lebanon appears increasingly fragile in the face of the civil war raging next door. In the more than two years since it began, Syria’s conflict has spilled over into Lebanon on multiple occasions. Artillery fire and missiles have struck Lebanese border villages, while clashes between Lebanese factions that support opposite sides have left dozens dead.
Now, Beirut’s southern suburbs are the scene of car bombings. The powerful explosion that hit the Hezbollah stronghold of Rweiss on Thursday killed at least 22 people. It was the second in just over a month to strike one of the Shiite group’s bastions of support, and the deadliest in decades.
Syrian rebels have threatened to retaliate against Hezbollah for intervening on behalf of Assad.
Against that backdrop, Thursday’s attack raises the worrying specter of Lebanon being dragged further into the Syrian civil war.
Hariri took over the mantle of leadership for Lebanon’s Sunni community after his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Harir, was assassinated in 2005 in a massive car bombing. A U.N. tribunal has charged four Hezbollah members in the killing. Hezbollah denies involvement in the assassination.
Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group also condemned Thursday’s bombing, and said it has repeatedly warned Nasrallah against getting involved in the Syrian conflict. But Nasrallah “refused to listen to reason, leading the whole region into a state of chaos and destruction,” the Syrian National Coalition said in a statement.