JEFFREY BROWN: Lebanon found itself reliving a nightmarish past today after the worst bombing in four years. At least eight people were killed and nearly 80 wounded in a car bomb attack.
The explosion rocked central Beirut as afternoon rush hour was getting under way, tearing through a mostly Christian neighborhood. Streets were strewn with burned-out cars, and the force of the blast blew out windows and doors, and sent bloodied, dazed people into the streets pleading for help.
WOMAN (through translator): The whole place was destroyed. God saved my life, nothing left no roof, no windows.
JEFFREY BROWN: Other witnesses to the bombing said it brought back grim memories of Lebanon's long civil war from 1975 to 1990.
MAN (through translator): I heard the sound that everybody heard. The loss of material things is not a problem. We are used to replacing the glass windows since 1975, but those who lost a loved one, that is the real loss.
JEFFREY BROWN: Among the dead today, police intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan. Lebanese officials said his convoy had been the target. Al-Hassan exposed a bomb plot last summer that was linked to Syria, and his killing instantly raised questions about a possible Syrian role in today's attack.
ANTOINE ANDRAOUS, Lebanese Parliament member (through translator): The message was to prove what the U.N. peace envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, has been saying, that all the region is on the edge of exploding because of what is happening in Syria. So Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent this message that they can do anything they want in the region.
JEFFREY BROWN: Lebanon had had a few years of relative calm, but the conflict in Syria has reopened sectarian fault lines.
The powerful Shiite militia Hezbollah, backed by Syria's ally Iran, supports the Assad regime. Lebanese Sunni Muslims support the predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels. The divide turned violent in August, when gun battles broke out in the northern city of Tripoli.
Tensions have also been fueled by a flood of Syrian refugees into Lebanon.
In Washington today, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stopped short of blaming Syria for today's attack, but she said Lebanon is at risk of being destabilized again.
VICTORIA NULAND, State Department: We have been saying for a number of weeks and in fact months now that we have been concerned about increasing tensions inside of Lebanon, particularly sectarian tensions and tensions as a result of spillover from Syria.
But I don't want to prejudge before the Lebanese authorities have had a chance to declare themselves who was responsible here.
JEFFREY BROWN: There was no such reluctance back in Lebanon, where Sunnis burned tires in protest in cities across the country as news of the bombing spread.