How One Beirut Street Found Itself on the Front Lines of a Regional War

How One Beirut Street Found Itself on the Front Lines of a Regional War

BEIRUT — At first glance, there is not much that distinguishes al-Areed Street, in the Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik, from any other neighborhood in the Lebanese capital. It is lined with small clothing shops, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and modest apartment buildings. A large mosque stands nearby, guarded by thick cement barriers.

The area wears its support for Hezbollah on its sleeve. Pictures of the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and of its assassinated military chief, Imad Mughniyeh, line the walls of some shops, and portraits of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decorate a few street corners. Meanwhile, banners above the street commemorate young men "martyred" in the service of Hezbollah. But none of that really sets al-Areed Street apart from many other predominantly Shiite, pro-Hezbollah neighborhoods in the Lebanese capital.

This fairly typical Beirut street, however, unexpectedly finds itself on the front line of a regional struggle for political power in Syria and Lebanon. A car bomb exploded on the street on the morning of Jan. 21, killing four people and wounding dozens more. The al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that it was in retaliation for "the massacres of the party of Iran [Hezbollah] against the children of Syria."

And retaliations are occurring with worrying regularity. On Jan. 2, a different al Qaeda affiliate orchestrated a car bomb attack mere yards from today’s blast, killing another four people. The twin attacks, coming less than a month apart, have residents scared — but defiant against an enemy that they believe wants to wipe them out completely.

"If it was up to me, I wouldn’t live here — but it’s where my shop is," says Mohammed, sitting inside his clothing shop down the street from the explosion. "Who can you blame? If there wasn’t Hezbollah, they [the attackers] wouldn’t do anything different. They want to erase the Shiites from Lebanon."

The once active commercial neighborhood, Mohammed said, grew quiet after the first bombing — and things are now bound to get worse. "The business is dead, dead, dead," he said. "People are afraid to walk on the street."

The attacks on al-Areed Street are just one part of the sectarian violence that has recently gripped Lebanon. Two other car bombings have shaken the country in the past month: The Dec. 27 assassination in downtown Beirut that killed Mohammed Chatah, a senior advisor to a key anti-Assad politician; and a car bombing in Hermel, a northeastern town that Hezbollah uses as a gateway to Syria, which killed five people. Meanwhile, seven people have been killed since Jan. 19 in the northern city of Tripoli, where clashes between Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods have become a regular occurrence.

Neither Hezbollah’s supporters nor the predominantly Sunni anti-Assad opposition have given any sign that they are looking for a grand bargain to prevent the country from spiraling into chaos. When asked whether there would be future bombings, many residents of al-Areed Street responded with a bitter fatalism.

"As long as there are people without humanity, without religion, this will continue," said Mohammad Abbas, the owner of Abu Jaafar restaurant, which overlooked the bomb site. The culprit, at the end of the day, was Arab presidents and foreign powers who follow "the path of Satan," he said, wreaking havoc in residential neighborhoods.

"All we can do is go about our lives," Abbas said. "Everyone has their time to die."

Behind him on al-Areed Street, Lebanese Army soldiers and Hezbollah-affiliated guards protected a cordon around the shattered building that had borne the brunt of the explosion. Someone had hung a new Hezbollah flag from one of its balconies, which fluttered over the outraged crowd below.