An unknown driver apparently on a suicide mission today drove his car into a building housing the Iraqi Embassy, setting off two huge explosions that killed as many as 20 people and injured 100 others.
The Iraqi Embassy complex in a seafront area, to which the diplomatic mission moved over a year ago, collapsed from the center down, eyewitnesses said, trapping several employes under the rubble.
The head of the Iraqi News Agency, Khaled Gheidan, who was released from the hospital later in the day, was quoted as saying that he had been buried under the walls and bricks for an hour and a half.
The sound of the two explosions reverberated through the capital at midday, scaring Christmas shoppers off the streets. Ambulances with sirens screaming carried the wounded to various hospitals in West Beirut as local radio stations interrupted their programming to report on the blast at the embassy.
In a telephone call to Agence France-Presse, a previously unknown group calling itself the Iraqi Liberation Army-General Command claimed responsibility for the attack.
The official Iraqi News Agency blamed intelligence agents of the Syrian and Iranian governments for the incident. A roadblock manned by Syrian soldiers belonging to the all-Syrian Arab Deterrent Force stands close to the embassy.
The Iraqi Embassy is among the best-guarded missions in Beirut, due to a history of attacks against Iraqi establishments over the past 15 months. Groups supporting either Iran or Iraq in the war between the two countries have engaged in street battles in Lebanon for months.
Although political factions in West Beirut have embarked on a campaign to bring the recurring clashes under control, today's attack seemed certain to touch off more violence.
The official Iraqi News Agency said embassy guards opened fire on the car racing toward them but could not prevent the explosion. Despite early reports to the contrary, Iraqi Ambassador Abdel Razzal Mohammed Lafta, who was in a nearby building, escaped unharmed.
The news agency said that 10 persons from the embassy were killed and 30 others wounded. Police sources insisted that the death toll stood at 20, with about 100 injured.