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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Marine Barracks In Beirut Bombed, October 23, 1983

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Today in 1983, the US Marine and French Parachute Infantry barracks were destroyed by truck bombs in Beirut, Lebanon. The attacks were a major incident of the Lebanese Civil War and would ultimately result in the withdrawal of the Multi-National Force from the region.

US Marines and French and Italian troops began arriving in Beirut on August 20, 1982. Their mission was to oversee the Palestine Liberation Organization’s withdrawal from the city and set up a permanent base of operations for future elements of the Multi-National Force. These actions were the result of an agreement between several of the warring factions and foreign forces in Lebanon, including Israel and Syria. Both governments had a vested interest in the beleaguered nation, and things came to a head when Israel invaded in June, 1982 in order to drive the PLO from the country. By the time the Multi-national Force arrived two months later, Israeli forces were dug in outside of Beirut.

Nearly 25 years later, it is hard to imagine a force of US and European troops keeping the peace in a nation that contained dozens of major and minor factions whose loyalties were constantly shifting. But the slim hope was that if a fragile peace could hold in Beirut, then the nation’s 8-year civil war could end peacefully and a legitimate government could form.

And so the morning of October 23, 1983 found the 1st Battalion 8th Marines of the 2nd Marine Division encamped at the Beirut International Airport. At 6:20AM, a Mercedes-Benz delivery truck, not an unusual sight in that part of the world, turned onto an access road leading to the Marines’ compound. Seconds later, the driver accelerated, crashed through a gate sped past two sentry posts. The Marines’ rules of engagement were very strict, and as a result their rifles were not loaded. By the time the men on duty were ready to return fire, it was too late: the truck crashed into the lobby of the barracks building where the driver detonated his payload, explosives equivalent to 6 tons of TNT. The four-story building collapsed.

Twenty seconds after the first blast, a very similar attack occurred at the barracks of the French Third Company of the Sixth French Parachute Infantry Regiment. This time, the suicide bomber drove his truck into the building’s underground parking lot. The French barracks was leveled as well.

Rescuers, hampered by occasional sniper fire, pulled survivors from the rubble of the two buildings for several days. All told, 304 people were killed: 241 Americans, 58 French and five civilians. 75 were injured. To this day, the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut remains the single deadliest incident for the US Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. It is also the deadliest terrorist attack on Americans overseas.

Initially, both US President Ronald Reagan and French President Francois Mitterrand proclaimed that the Multi-national Force would remain in place. France launched a retaliatory air strike against Iranian Revolutionary Guard positions in the Beqaa Valley. US naval assests, including the recently re-commissioned battleship USS New Jersey, shelled some positions inland of Beirut later in the year; it was the first time that her 16-inch guns had been fired in anger since the Vietnam war. The Reagan administration considered a stronger response, but did not want to damage US relationships with Lebanon’s neighbors.

Despite initial statements of defiance, the nations of the Multi-national Force soon made other plans. The US Marines still in the Beirut area were initially moved offshore and were eventually withdrawn in February, 1984. By that April, the rest of the MNF had left.

The party responsible for the two bombings is still not definitively known. Some of the families of Marines who died in the bombing sued in court to find the responsible parties. In 2003, a US District Court judge ruled that Iran was behind the bombings based on National Security Agency intercepts of messages sent to the Iranian ambassador to Syria from Iranian intelligence units. However, several groups claimed responsibility for the bombings at the time.

No matter who committed the crime, the bombings made one thing clear to the world: suicide bombing, although not new, had become a weapon of war in the Middle East and would visit death and destruction upon the world over the next quarter-century.

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