BEIRUT — A powerful car bomb exploded in a Hezbollah stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut on Tuesday, wounding at least 53 people in the most troubling sign yet that Syria’s civil war is beginning to consume its smaller neighbor.
The blast in the heart of the Shi’ite militant group’s bastion of support raised the worrying specter of Lebanon being pulled into the violent Sunni-Shi’ite struggle in the region, with sectarian killings similar to those plaguing Syria and Iraq.
The Syrian conflict, now in its third year, is whipping up sectarian fervor. Sunni-Shi’ite tensions have risen sharply, particularly since Hezbollah raised its profile by openly fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces. Lebanese Sunnis support the rebels fighting to topple Assad.
While there was no claim of responsibility, there have been growing fears in Lebanon that Hezbollah could face retaliation for its now overt role fighting alongside Assad’s troops. The group’s fighters played a key role in a recent regime victory to retake control of the strategic town of Qusair, near Lebanon, where rebels held sway for more than a year. Syrian activists say Hezbollah fighters are now aiding a regime offensive in the besieged city of Homs.
Syria-based rebels and militant Islamist groups have threatened to target Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon.
The car bomb struck a bustling commercial and residential neighborhood in Beir el-Abed, an area of particularly strong Hezbollah support, as many Lebanese Shi’ites began observing the holy month of Ramadan. The blast went off in a parking lot near the Islamic Coop, a supermarket usually packed with shoppers.
“The explosion was so strong I thought it was an Israeli air raid,” said Mohammad al-Zein, who lives near the blast site. “My wife was sleeping in bed and all the glass fell on her, injuring her in the mouth, arms, and legs.”
Beir el-Abed is only few hundred yards from what is known as Hezbollah’s “security square,” where many of the party’s officials live and have offices. It was heavily bombed by Israeli warplanes during the monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006.
The area, where Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah received dignitaries before the 2006 war, was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. He has since gone underground, only rarely appearing in public and never for more than few minutes, fearing Israeli assassination.
Tuesday’s attack inflamed long-simmering tensions in Lebanon, where deadly clashes between Shi’ites and Sunnis have grown increasingly common as the civil war in Syria has taken on ever darker sectarian overtones. Some Sunnis in Lebanon, many of whom support Syria’s rebels, have expressed resentment over what they see as Hezbollah’s unchecked power in the country.
The anger was clear among residents of Dahyeh, Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs. At the scene, some cursed Sunni politicians and Syrian rebels, calling them Israeli agents.
With smoke in the air, about 100 outraged Hezbollah supporters stormed the area, carrying posters of Nasrallah and chanting sectarian slogans.
“Shi’ite blood is boiling!” they shouted as Hezbollah operatives wearing red caps and holding radios kept watch.
At one point, the Hezbollah agents fired in the air to disperse protesters pelting the interior minister with stones after he inspected the scene of the blast, trapping him for 45 minutes in a building before he was escorted through a backdoor.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel is seen by some Shi’ites as sympathetic to hardline Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Assir, who has agitated against Hezbollah for months and is on the run.
Clashes between Assir’s supporters and Lebanese Army troops last month in the coastal city of Sidon increased sectarian tensions in the country.
“We, the sons of Imam Hussein, have been targeted for 1,400 years,” said Abbas Kobeissi, 32, a barber being treated for head wounds after Tuesday’s blast. He referred to the grandson of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, a key figure in Shi’ite Islam whose death in the seventh century increased divisions between Sunnis and Shi’ites.