BEIRUT (AP) — Undeterred by a devastating suicide attack that rocked the Iranian Embassy in Beirut a day earlier, hundreds of Hezbollah supporters pumped their fists in the air Wednesday and vowed eternal allegiance to the Lebanese Shiite militant group as they buried victims from the bombing.
Hezbollah's deputy leader Naim Kassem said the group will not be dissuaded from supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country's civil war, describing recurrent attacks on Shiite strongholds in Lebanon as "inevitable pains on the road to victory."
The attack, by two suicide bombers who detonated their explosives outside the mission's metal gates, killed 23 people, including an Iranian diplomat and embassy guards. More than 140 others were wounded, according to the Health Ministry.
The bombing was the latest in a series of attacks that have struck Lebanese Shiite areas in recent months, some of which Sunni radicals claimed they made in retaliation for Hezbollah's backing of Assad's forces against the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to overthrow him in Syria's increasingly sectarian conflict.
An al-Qaida-linked militant group claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attack — the deadliest targeting of Iranian interests since the uprising against Assad began in March 2013. Iran has been a staunch supporter of Assad's government, and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah has been instrumental in helping his troops flush out insurgents from key areas near the Lebanese border.
Hezbollah has defended its actions in Syria, calling it a necessary and existential fight against Sunni extremists who increasingly dominate the rebellion there. Hezbollah's Kassem dismissed accusations that the group's cross-border intervention had brought on the attacks in Lebanon, telling its radio station: "This terrorist attack will not deter us from our course."
Assad's view of the war — that it is a fight against terrorism and not a revolt against his family's decades long rule — has been echoed by Hezbollah and was on full display at Wednesday's procession in southern Beirut.
"Death to America, Israel and the takfiris!" shouted hundreds mourning four of the dead, in the predominantly Shiite Ghobeiri district. Takfiris refer to Sunni radicals. Hezbollah supporters routinely denounce the U.S and Israel.
"If Hezbollah wasn't taking part in the battles in Syria, the takfiris would have long invaded our homes and slaughtered us all like they are doing in Syria," said Ghada Samaha, a 45-year-old Hezbollah supporter taking part in the funeral.
The woman, wearing a head-to-toe black covering known as a chador, said she was ready to sacrifice her three sons for the fight in Syria, if Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said it was necessary. "I don't have a problem with it. This is what we want," she said.
The bravado is typical of the group's supporters, who tend to close ranks and rally around their leadership in times of trouble. But the repeated attacks against Shiite strongholds have raised questions on how far the community is willing to go in its support, particularly as the attacks become more sophisticated.
Tuesday's strike was the first suicide bombing to target Shiite areas in Lebanon since the war in Syria started. Previous large-scale attacks on Hezbollah strongholds include an Aug. 15 car bombing in southern Beirut suburbs that killed 27 and wounded more than 300. A less powerful car bomb targeted the same area July 9, wounding more than 50.
"It is hard to tell how much Lebanon's Shiites can tolerate this state of war with the Sunnis. Fighting Israeli occupation was easy to sell, but not this," said Bilal Saab, director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, North America.
Women wept as Hezbollah pallbearers carried the coffins of four who died in Tuesday's attacks, including Radwan Fares, a Lebanese national who headed the Iranian Embassy's security. Women threw flower petals and rice from balconies at the coffins below, wrapped in yellow Hezbollah flags.
"At your service Hezbollah," shouted the men on the streets, fists thrusting in a rhythmic salute.
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