A car bomb attack killed one of Lebanon's top military generals and at least two others Wednesday, the military and state media said, putting even more pressure on the country's delicate political situation.
The target of the attack, Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj, a top Maronite Catholic in the command, was considered a leading candidate to succeed the head of the military, Gen. Michel Suleiman, if Suleiman is elected president.
Hajj, 55, also led a major military campaign against Islamic militants over the summer.
The blast is the first such attack against the Lebanese army, which has remained neutral in Lebanon's yearlong political crisis and is widely seen as the only force that can hold the country together amid the bitter infighting between parliament's rival factions.
The political divisions have paralyzed the government and prevented the election of a president, leaving the post empty since Nov. 23 in a dangerous power vacuum. Under Lebanon's sectarian division of political posts, the president must be a Maronite, like the army commander.
The slaying of Hajj and its timing amid the deadlock over the presidency raised immediate speculation over who was behind the bombing, which blasted Hajj's SUV as he drove through a busy street of Baabda district.
Anti-Syrian politicians blamed Damascus, as they have for a string of bombings over the past two years that killed eight prominent opponents of Syria. Damascus has denied any role in those killings.
Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, speaking to Associated Press Television News, accused the "Syrian-Iranian axis" of hitting the military, "the only body in Lebanon who can balance the power of Hezbollah and other militias in the country."
But the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, which has good relations with the army, denounced the assassination. It called Hajj's death a "great national loss" and praised the military's "great national role" in preserving security.
"We were on the brink of agreeing on a presidential candidate, and then this happens... It is calamitous for Lebanon," said Aoun.
Suspicion also fell on al Qaeda-inspired Sunni Muslim militants, whom the army crushed at the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon in an operation led by Hajj, a battle that cost hundreds of lives.
Hikmat Deeb, a leading member of Aoun's opposition Free Patriotic Movement, said Hajj was "a hero of Nahr el-Bared," suggesting the battle there was a factor in the assassination.
The military refrained from laying blame, saying in a statement that "the criminal hand" killed Hajj, along with "a number of soldiers, and wounded others." It said the military was investigating.
The blast went off at 7:10 a.m. (12:10 a.m. EST) on a busy street near the Baabda Municipality building as school buses and people were setting off for work. Hajj, who lives in the area, had left his home few minutes earlier, probably heading to the nearby Defense Ministry, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with military rules.
A parked car packed with 77 pounds of TNT exploded as his SUV passed, knocking a crater two yards wide and a yard deep into the pavement.
Two bodies were thrown about 15 yards by the force of the blast. Troops sealed off the area as firefighters tried to put out the flames in at least two cars. The road was blacked with the soot as black smoke covered the area.
The security officials said three people were confirmed dead, including the general, his driver and bodyguard. Emergency workers were searching in nearby bushes for a possible fourth body.
Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, said the attack came at a "pivotal time at which Lebanon's enemies are seeking to consecrate the vacuum in the presidency."
The failure to elect a president has embroiled Lebanon in its worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. The country has been without a president since Nov. 23 when Emile Lahoud left office and a deadlocked parliament failed to elect a successor.
Parliament is sharply divided between anti-Syrian supporters of the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the opposition, led by Hezbollah, an ally of Syria and Iran.
The two sides are locked in a dispute over how to elect the army commander, Suleiman, as compromise candidate to fill the vacant presidency. His election requires a constitutional amendment because currently a sitting army commander is barred from the post.
Lebanon has been rocked by a series of explosion since a massive truck bombing killed former Premier Rafik Hariri in central Beirut in 2005.
The last major explosion on Sept. 19 killed anti-Syrian lawmaker Antoine Ghanem on a Beirut street, an attack blamed by his supporters in the government coalition on Syria. Syria denied involvement.