A May 31 article cited a ruling by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth that described Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as the president of Iran at the time of the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut. Rafsanjani was the speaker of the Iranian parliament at the time. He was elected president in 1989. (Published 6/4/03)

A federal judge in Washington ruled yesterday that Iran was behind the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 American servicemen, clearing the way for more than 600 of their relatives to collect financial damages against the Islamic republic.

In a 30-page decision that resulted from a lawsuit filed by the families, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth wrote that the terrorist group Hezbollah carried out the attack at the behest of Iran and its Ministry of Information and Security.

"The approval of both the Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini and President [Ali Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani was absolutely necessary to carry out the continuing economic commitment of Iran to Hezbollah, and to execute the Oct. 23 attack," the judge wrote. "Given their positions of authority, any act of these two officials must be deemed an act of the government of Iran."

Steven R. Perles, an attorney in the case, hailed the decision, saying it was the first time a judicial ruling had linked Iran to the barracks bombing.

"The fact that Iran has taken on the role as the preeminent sponsor of terrorism, and is the subject of discussion in the White House only heightens the importance of the decision," Perles said.

In issuing his ruling, the judge said a court-appointed master would consider the financial claims in the case. Ultimately, however, it may be difficult to collect compensation. The only money paid to victims of Iranian terrorism to date has come from a fund in the U.S. Treasury that matches the $400 million remaining in frozen Iranian accounts.

Perles said he hopes to obtain payouts by locating secret Iranian investments in the United States that he said may exceed $4 billion.

One of the plaintiffs in the case, Lynn Smith Derbyshire, 42, of Northern Virginia, whose oldest brother, Capt. Vincent L. Smith, was killed in the bombing, said she was thrilled with the decision.

"When I first heard the news, I fell to my knees in tears," she said. "This is a step toward justice. The Beirut bombing has been brushed under the rug all these years. Now it's been proven in a court of law that the government of Iran was responsible for this."

The lawsuit was filed in 2001 on behalf of more than 600 people who lost immediate family members in the truck bombing of the Marines' 24th Amphibious Unit. The bombing eventually led to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Lebanon.

Under the rules of combat, U.S. troops have no clear legal right to sue. But the judge ruled that the troops were on a peacekeeping mission under peacetime rules of engagement. Therefore, survivors and family members could sue Iran under a 1996 law that allows U.S. citizens to take legal action against nations that sponsor terrorism.

On Dec. 18, 2002, Lamberth entered default judgments against Iran after it failed to respond to the lawsuit. But the law requires the court to conduct a fact-finding proceeding before finalizing the judgment.

During a two-day trial in March, expert witnesses testified about Iran's sponsorship of Hezbollah. A Hezbollah member involved in the bombing also testified via videotape that the Iranian ambassador to Syria, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, directed the terrorist organization through an intermediary "to go forward with attacks" in Lebanon.

"No order from this court will restore the 241 lives that were stolen on October 23, 1983," Lamberth concluded in his ruling. "But the Court can take steps that will punish the men who carried out this unspeakable attack, and in so doing, try to achieve some small measure of justice for its survivors and for the family members of the 241 Americans who never came home."