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Car bomb kills key Lebanese intelligence official

Special to The Times

A powerful car bomb Friday in a suburb of the Lebanese capital killed a key investigator of a string of previous assassinations and Al Qaeda-linked groups said to be fomenting political violence in this shaky country.

Inspector Wissam Eid, a ranking intelligence official in the Internal Security Forces, and his aide were killed by the explosion in an intersection in a mostly Christian area east of Beirut.

At least two other civilians died and 41 were wounded, security and medical officials said. Eid, despite his position, did not have the high profile of the anti-Syria politicians and journalists who have been assassinated in the last three years in Lebanon.

Some saw the attack as an attempt to further shake one of the few functioning institutions in the country, which is amid its worst political crisis since its civil war ended in 1990. Lebanon has been unable to agree on a president for more than two months, divided by a power-sharing dispute between the U.S.-backed government and the Iranian- and Syrian-allied opposition led by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. A caretaker government is managing the country’s day-to-day affairs.

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The midmorning explosion came 10 days after a car bomb struck a U.S. Embassy convoy, killing three civilians, and six weeks after the slaying of army Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj.

“There is a force that wants to drive Lebanon from a failed state to a non-state,” said Nizar Abdel-Qader, a retired army general and analyst on security issues. “With all of Lebanon’s political institutions crippled, the recent targets are not political anymore but rather aimed at the still-operational security apparatus.”

“A very important officer in the ISF was targeted,” said Gen. Ashraf Rifi, head of the division, which is considered close to U.S.-backed Sunni politician Saad Hariri. “He was handling many important security files.”

Security officials said that Eid was overseeing the inquiry into the telephone intercepts linked to the recent spate of bombings, which began with the Feb. 14, 2005, killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, father of Saad Hariri.

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His assassination and those that followed were largely attributed to Syria by the Western-backed ruling coalition. Syria, which had troops in Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, denies the accusation.

Eid was also involved in interrogations of members of Al Qaeda-linked Fatah al Islam, which battled Lebanese government forces last summer, said a high-ranking army officer who was not authorized to speak on the record.

"[Eid] was low-profile,” the officer said. “He was not well known. Those who attacked him knew exactly his role in terrorist investigations.”

Security officials said Eid had been wounded in the May 2007 raid against Fatah al Islam members that sparked the three-month battle against the group in a Palestinian refugee camp of northern Lebanon

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Eid, 31, joined the ISF in 2001, quickly moving up the ranks to become head of the technical department of the intelligence unit. He escaped an assassination attempt about a year ago when a booby trap was placed near his residence in an eastern Beirut suburb, the security officials said.

Analysts say that security officials face stiff challenges in safeguarding the nation. Lt. Col. Samir Chehade, also an ISF inspector, survived a 2006 car bomb attack.

“Lebanon has many security holes that are very dangerous to the country,” said Sami Zod, an ex-security official here who is president of a group representing Lebanese security firms. “These zones are filled with heavily armed fundamentalists that can be easily manipulated by the numerous intelligence apparatuses that infiltrate this country.”

Abdel-Qader said the violence was being directed from abroad, making it difficult for Lebanese officials investigating the crimes.

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“Whatever the group behind the terror here, they have allies in Lebanon who facilitate their work by providing a safe haven for them and a logistical base,” Abdel-Qader said.

Lebanon is awaiting a meeting of Arab foreign ministers Sunday that is expected to push for a solution to the presidential crisis. In a statement, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora declared today a day of national mourning.

Friday’s explosion took place along a highway underpass in the Hazmieh suburb. Lebanese television showed video of at least two corpses, one sitting behind the wheel of a laundry delivery truck and another lying amid the rubble of the blast. The explosion shattered glass for blocks around and smashed dozens of cars parked at a nearby lot. The bomb carved a 4-foot-wide crater into the roadway.

In scenes broadcast on television, firefighters battled car fires and soldiers struggled to push bystanders away.

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“I want to see my son! I want to see my son!” cried one middle-aged woman pushing to get through to the blast site.

Milat Aoun, 40, an engineer working at a nearby office building, was sitting behind his desk when he heard a powerful explosion. “I flew from my desk and there was glass everywhere,” he said, blood smeared on his forehead. “I tried to shield myself by crouching to the ground.”

At a hospital nearby, Rana Najem, 22, a college student, was treated for head and neck injuries.

“I have seen many bombs on TV in recent years,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I was actually in one of them.”

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daragahi@latimes.com

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Rafei is a special correspondent and Daragahi a Times staff writer.

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