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Rockets hit Beirut strongholds of Hezbollah

| Sunday, May 26, 2013, 9:03 p.m.

Two rockets hit Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut on Sunday, tearing through an apartment and peppering cars with shrapnel, a day after the Lebanese group's leader pledged to lift President Bashar Assad to victory in Syria's civil war.

The strikes illustrated the potential backlash against Hezbollah at home for linking its fate to the survival of the Assad regime. It's a gambit that also threatens to pull fragile Lebanon deeper into Syria's bloody conflict.

Despite such risks, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah made it clear there is no turning back. In a televised speech on Saturday, he said Hezbollah will keep fighting alongside Assad's forces until victory, regardless of the costs.

For Hezbollah, it may well be an existential battle. If Assad falls, Hezbollah's supply line of Iranian weapons through Syrian territory would dry up and it could become increasingly isolated in the region.

At the same time, Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group, is raising the sectarian stakes in Lebanon by declaring war on Syria's rebels, most of them Sunni Muslims.

Lebanon and Syria share the same uneasy mix of Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Alawites, or followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam. In trying to defeat the rebels, Assad relies on support from minority Shiites, Christians and his fellow Alawites.

On Beirut's beach promenade, opinions about Hezbollah's new strategy seemed to fall along religious lines.

Mahmoud Masoud, a Sunni, said he fears Lebanon will become more unstable. “I don't want to see everything I've worked for and my country fall apart because of a certain group's interests,” he said of Hezbollah.

Tamam Alameh, a Shiite, sided with Hezbollah. “The Syrians helped Lebanon a lot. We should help them and rid them of the conflict in their country,” he said.

The rockets struck early Sunday in south Beirut, an unusual type of attack. In occasional sectarian flare-ups since the end of Lebanon's 15-year civil war in 1990, rival groups have fought mostly in the streets.

One rocket hit a car dealership in the Mar Mikhael district, wounding four Syrian workers, badly damaging two cars, and spraying others with shrapnel. Part of the rocket's main body was embedded in the ground, where a Lebanese soldier measured its diameter.

The second rocket tore through a second-floor apartment in the Chiyah district, about one mile away. It damaged a living room, but no one was hurt.

Rocket launchers were later found in the woods in a predominantly Christian and Druse area southeast of Beirut, security officials said.

There was no claim of responsibility, but the attack was widely portrayed as retaliation for Nasrallah's defiant speech and Hezbollah's participation in a regime offensive in the past week on the rebel-held Syrian town of Qusair, near Lebanon. The regime has pushed back the rebels in Qusair, but so far has failed to dislodge them.

In an amateur video posted online a few days ago, a rebel commander threatened to hit Hezbollah targets in south Beirut in retaliation for the militia's part in the fight for Qusair.

Some said the rockets are just one sign that Lebanon is becoming a battleground.

“Nasrallah declared that he is part of the Syrian civil war,” said Nadim Koteich, a TV talk show host and frequent Hezbollah critic. “He did not tell the Lebanese people why he thinks this civil war will not come to Lebanon.”

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