JERUSALEM (Oct. 23)
A “kamikaze ” bombing attack on the multinational peacekeeping force in Beirut this morning took the lives of at least 135 U.S. marines and nine French soldiers. According to reports, scores of marines were wounded and 53 French soldiers were reported missing and presumed dead. The toll of deaths and other casualties is expected to go higher. The headquarters of the U.S. and French troops were reduced to a mass of rubble and rescue workers desparately tried to extricate those trapped inside.
Premier Yitzhak Shamir cabled condolences to President Reagan and President Francois Mitterrand of France. Reagan cut short a golf weekend in Augusta, Ga., to return to Washington.
Israeli Arab affairs experts promptly blamed the Syrian government for the outrage and speculated that the car bomb attacks on marine headquarters at Beirut airport and the similar attack on French military headquarters were carried out by suicide squads either of Iranians or members of Amal, a pro-Syrian Lebanese Moslem group.
Shamir’s message to Reagan said, “We deeply share the grief and sorrow of the people of the United States and France and their governments over the terrible tragedy and loss of life. ” Israel has reportedly made its hospitals available for the wounded American and French soldiers.
According to early reports, a pickup truck loaded with about 2,000 pounds of high explosives crashed through the barriers of marine headquarters under fire and exploded on the ground floor of the building which is also used as a barracks. Some 200 marines were reportedly asleep at the time. A simultaneous suicide attack was carried out against the French headquarters in Beirut.
NO DOUBT OF SYRIA’S INVOLVEMENT
Aharon Barnea, Arab affairs reporter for Israel Radio, called the attacks part of a Syrian attempt to create “as speedy as possible Vietnamization of the Lebanese situation and American involvement.” Prof. Ittamar Rabinowitz, head of the Shiloah Institute for Arab and Middle East Affairs at Tel Aviv University, said there was no doubt that Syria was responsible.
He said it was in line with Syria’s record of assassinations which took the lives of Lebanon’s President-elect Bashir Gemayel in 1982, the brother of President Amin Gemayel, and Kamal Jumblatt, father of Walid Jumblatt, the present leader of the Druze in Lebanon.
According to Rabinowitz, the Syrians, through their surrogates, were responsible for the blast at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and sniper attacks on individual marines. He said the Damascus government wanted to oust any foreign force that could stand in the way of Syrian control over Lebanon.
Rabinowitz suggested that in today’s attack the Syrians made use of Iranian “volunteers” or Amal men who were involved in the recent fighting in the Shouf mountains against the Lebanese army and Christian militias.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE TRAGEDY
Differences of opinion over the implications and results of today’s tragic assaults on American and French troops were expressed by Eliahu Ben-Elissar, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, and former Premier Yitzhak Rabin, a leader of the opposition Labor Alignment.
Ben-Elissar predicted that the Reagan Administration would continue to play its major role in the Middle East despite an anticipated sharp reaction in Congress and the media to today’s events.
Rabin said he believed the Syrians and their Soviet allies presently have the upper hand in the region. By withdrawing its forces from the Shouf mountains six weeks ago, Israel lost whatever influence it had in Lebanon and the U.S. is now fighting a lost cause there. “The battle for Beirut has now been lost, ” Rabin said.
Ben-Elissar denied this. He noted that Israel had succeeded in ousting the PLO from Beirut. Rabin insisted that Beirut once again has become a center of terrorism. The Likud MK did not agree that the U.S. has lost out either in Beirut or Lebanon as a whole.
Rabin predicted that the U.S. would stand tough at first but try to find a formula to extricate the marines from Lebanon with as little loss of face as possible, as it did in Vietnam nearly 10 years ago.