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Al-Qaida-linked group targets Hezbollah backers in Lebanon

| Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, 7:00 p.m.

BEIRUT — A group linked to al-Qaida claimed responsibility on Saturday for a suicide car bombing last week in a Shiite-dominated neighborhood in Lebanon, as its fighters fought other rebels in neighboring Syria in the most serious infighting since the uprising began.

It was the first time that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant claimed responsibility for an attack in Lebanon, underscoring how the complex Syrian war is increasingly spilling into its smaller neighbor.

The group may have rushed to claim responsibility to try to divert attention from the infighting in Syria, said Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert on the country's militant groups.

At least five people were killed in the Thursday attack that targeted a south Beirut neighborhood that is bastion of support for the Shiite group Hezbollah.

ISIL vowed more attacks.

It was “the first small payment of a heavy account which these criminal hypocrites should wait for,” it said in a statement, referring to Hezbollah. The statement was posted on a website used by Sunni militants.

The al-Qaida group sought to punish Hezbollah — and its ordinary Shiite Lebanese backers — for sending fighters to Syria to shore up forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is trying to quell an armed uprising against his rule.

The bombing was the latest in a wave of attacks to hit Lebanon in recent months. The violence has targeted both Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, further stoking sectarian tensions that are running high.

It also reflected how Lebanese are turning on each other. On Saturday, Lebanese authorities confirmed the identity of the suicide bomber, the state news agency reported. Media identified him as a Lebanese citizen from a northern border town with Syria.

Thursday's bombing came a week after a car bombing in Beirut killed prominent Sunni politician Mohammed Chatah. The top aide to ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri was critical of Assad and his Hezbollah allies.

The tensions in Lebanon reflect the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian war, where hard-line Sunni rebels dominating rebel groups have shown little tolerance for Syria's patchwork of minorities.

In response, Syrian minorities have rallied behind Assad or remained neutral, fearing for their future should Sunni extremists come to power.

ISIL is one of the strongest rebel groups in Syria.

It emerged from the Sunni heartland of neighboring Iraq, where it also has targeted Shiites with car bombs, sending the country to the brink of civil war.

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