By Dominic Evans
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Thirty years after the Lebanese capital gave birth to the modern suicide bomber, a killer has again driven his explosive-packed car towards an embassy in Beirut, hurling charred corpses through the street.
For Lebanese, Tuesday's carnage at the Iranian embassy - 23 people were killed and nearly 150 wounded - was both a sharp jolt from their own bloody past and a harrowing omen of a future as the Middle East's next sectarian slaughterhouse.
Many Lebanese say they now believe their country is doomed to become the next battlefield for Sunni jihadists, looking for soft targets to inflict blows on the Shi'ite supporters of neighboring Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.
Lebanon has already been caught in the blowback from the 2 1/2-year-old civil war in Syria, with scores killed in clashes between Shi'ite Muslim supporters of Assad and their Sunni foes.
But Tuesday's suicide attack against the embassy of Shi'ite Iran, claimed by a Sunni militant group, took violence to a higher level. It resurrected the tactics born in a previous generation's Lebanon war, which are now the signature of neighboring states' bloodbaths.
Shi'ites expressed the most fear.
"We expect a bloody conflict, more bombs," said Ali Abbas, a Shi'ite poet attending a funeral in southern Beirut on Wednesday for four of the men killed in the attack. "This is a fight between the dark and the light, the night and the day," he said. "They are present in Iraq, Syria and now Lebanon."
Lebanon may "turn into a field of jihad - as the terrorist groups call it - as happened in Iraq and Syria," said parliament speaker Nabih Berri, also a Shi'ite.
"Our country will drown in these kinds of operations," he told Al-Nahar newspaper.
Other communities are also deeply worried. Lebanon's anti-Assad March 14 coalition, which groups anti-Assad Sunni Muslims and Christians, laid blame with the powerful Iran-backed Shi'ite militia Hezbollah, saying it had provoked the violence by joining Syria's war on Assad's behalf.
"There is a fear that Hezbollah's continued intervention in Syria will lead to the Iraq-isation of Lebanon. They went to war in Syria and brought the war to Lebanon," it said.
The Syrian war has polarized Lebanon and the wider Middle East between Sunnis and Shi'ites, sects that have fought since the first generation after Islam's 7th century founding. Sunni Muslims support the rebels fighting Assad and Shi'ites back the president, whose Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shi'ism.
This year, Assad gained momentum by winning the overt battlefield support of Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters, as well as help from Iraqi Shi'ites and Iranian commanders. Meanwhile Sunnis, including Lebanese, have poured into Syria to aid the rebels, who are armed and funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Beirut-based political commentator Rami Khouri said the "Armageddon scenario" - Iranian Shi'ite revolutionary forces facing off against Saudi-backed Sunni militants across the Middle East - was drawing rapidly closer.
"You have these two broad groups now openly attacking each other. It's no longer a battle of proxies - the principles are killing each other in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq".
More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria's civil war, and a similar number during a decade of Sunni-Shi'ite violence in Iraq. Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war killed 120,000.
The modern phenomenon of suicide bombing - the tactic that more than any other has become the grisly hallmark of today's Middle East violence - first blasted its way onto the world's consciousness in April 1983, when a man drove a car packed with explosives into the U.S. embassy in Beirut. The attack killed 63 people including 17 Americans.
Six months later two men drove trucks packed with explosives into U.S. and French barracks in Beirut suburbs, killing 299 American and French troops. A group calling itself Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for that attack, although Washington has long suspected that the true culprit was Hezbollah.
Today, suicide bombing is the signature of Sunni groups, especially al Qaeda's Iraq branch, which has sent more than a thousand bombers to blow themselves up at markets, cafes, mosques and police checkpoints in the past decade. It has now joined forces with the Sunni rebels fighting in Syria.
Tuesday's attack, the first major strike on an embassy in Beirut since Lebanon's civil war, was claimed by a Lebanon-based Sunni Islamist militant group which warned of more attacks unless Tehran withdraws its military forces from Syria.
One bomber carried 5 kg (12 pounds) of explosives and a second drove a car laden with 50 kg, in what may have been an attempt to breach embassy walls and then blow the car up inside the compound.
Amidst the anger and trepidation, the public responses from Iran and Hezbollah have been restrained. Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem called on all Lebanese "to stand together and face this terrorism, whatever our political differences".
He also played down the prospect that Lebanon could descend into all-out violence. "Lebanon has not yet reached the point where it can be compared to Iraq. The situation is different, and we are at the beginning of the road."
But privately, Shi'ite politicians described Tuesday's bombing as a watershed. One said the use of suicide bombers had "changed the rules of the game" while another said Lebanon had been turned into a "jihadi battleground".
"This bombing ups the ante," said Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute, noting that previous rocket and bomb attacks earlier this year had targeted Hezbollah, not its patron Iran.
"Lebanon is part of a proxy war that is engulfing the entire Levant and the alliances that back the factions in Lebanon are the same that back opposing groups in Syria and Iraq," he said.
"A pattern could evolve, as it did in Iraq in 2005-2006 and onward, in which car bombs and suicide missions were one of the main instruments of sectarian and proxy conflict."
TURNING TO SOFT TARGETS
The trigger for the Iranian embassy attack may have been the latest offensive by Assad's forces - in the mountainous Qalamoun region north of Damascus, close to Lebanon's border.
The fighting has helped Assad consolidate his power around the capital and further reduce the ability of the rebels to cross over between Lebanon and Syria.
The combination of rebel military setbacks and the presence of large numbers of fighters on the Lebanese side of the border may have led some Sunni militants to switch their focus towards soft targets connected to Assad's allies, such as the embassy.
"I assume these groups were able to strike against the embassy previously, and had held back for some reason," said Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Centre. "It's a reasonable assumption that the battle for Qalamoun is the likely trigger."
Lebanon has no shortage of potential recruits for similar attacks, particularly in its north.
"Across the whole (northern) area from the coast to the Syrian border... these Salafi Islamist groups have been rising up over the last ten years," Khouri said.
Widespread fears of what all-out conflict could do to Lebanon could be the best protection against escalating violence. But they are unlikely to halt attacks by shadowy groups on either side of the regional conflict.
"No one in Lebanon has the interest or stomach for large-scale military confrontations," said Sayigh. "But shadow wars are different because you don't need significant numbers, you don't need front lines, and it's easy to hit soft targets."
(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes, Stephen Kalin and Laila Bassam; Editing by Peter Graff)