By BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press Writer BEIRUT, Lebanon – With Lebanese politicians deadlocked over the formation of a new government as Syria withdraws its forces after 29 years, a car bomb rocked a largely Christian neighborhood in north Beirut early Saturday, injuring seven people and causing extensive damage. The target of the attack wasn’t immediately clear but it added to the political turmoil after the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops to east Lebanon and Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have been participating in demonstrations for and against Syria since Hariri was killed. Anti-Syrian opposition demonstrations have included large numbers of Maronite Christians.

The explosion played to concerns among some Lebanese that pro-Syrian elements might resort to violence to show, in their view, the need for continued presence by Damascus forces.

The efforts to form a new government have bogged down over divergent demands from factions for and against Syria, raising concerns that the deadlock that could threaten upcoming elections and even the final withdrawal of Syrian forces.

Premier-designate Omar Karami has insisted on a “national unity” government, but the anti-Syrian opposition is refusing to join before its demands are met. Some opposition members accuse Karami of stalling to kill the chances of holding an election they believe the pro-Syrian camp will lose.

Walid Jumblatt, an opposition leader, said parliamentary elections should be held as planned for April and May.

“Why postpone the parliamentary elections? Let them hold the elections according to the electoral law they deem suitable, but we will not participate in the government,” he said in an interview with Future Television.

The opposition has demanded a neutral Cabinet to arrange for elections, the resignation of security chiefs and international investigation into Hariri’s death.

The explosive injured at least seven people, blew off the fronts of some structures, left a seven-foot-deep crater, damaged parked cars and shops and shattered windows for several blocks in the New Jdeideh neighborhood.

Witnesses said the car attempted to stop in front of a bingo hall, but security guards asked its driver to move along. The driver then parked the car a short way down the road. Minutes later it exploded.

Shaken residents, many in their pajamas and night gowns, came out into the street and stood outside the damaged building behind a police cordon.

“We were sleeping when it happened,” said a white-haired man, wearing blue pajamas, who declined to be identified. “We don’t know what and why. No one important lives here.” He said two of his children were injured by flying glass.

Bomb explosions had been rare since Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, but Hariri was killed in a massive explosion that ripped through his motorcade in downtown Beirut and killing 17 other people. After Hariri’s assassination, pressure built on Syria to remove its troops that arrived in 1976 as a peacekeeping force in the early years of the Lebanese civil war.

On Thursday, Syria completed the first phase of its withdrawal in Lebanon, redeploying all of its remaining soldiers and military intelligence officers to the eastern Bekaa Valley. Of the 14,000 troops that were in Lebanon last month, at least 4,000 soldiers have returned to Syria.

At the United Nations (newsweb sites), Maronite Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir said that Syria had given assurances it would withdraw its troops from Lebanon before the country’s elections in April and May, as top U.N. and American officials want.

“Syria has given assurances to Mr. Larsen and Mr. Annan, and I am hoping those assurances will happen,” Sfeir told reporters, referring to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (newsweb sites) and U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen. He added, however, that he had not spoken with the Syrians about it himself.


Asked later whether Sfeir’s comments were accurate, the U.N. official said on condition of anonymity that the United Nations has a commitment that Syria will withdraw — and has gotten “signals” that it would happen before the vote. The official would go no further.