BEIRUT, Lebanon — A day before Lebanon prepared to mark the second anniversary of the assassination of its former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, three people were killed and about 23 others wounded when two minibuses were bombed as they ferried passengers to work, to shopping and to Bible study classes.
In a country so fragile and on edge because of its internal political struggles, the bombers managed to heighten tensions, but not by attacking government ministers or the politically outspoken. Instead the targets were passengers who paid the equivalent of about 80 cents to pile into a minibus for the half-hour ride to Beirut.
It was the first such attack — directed at ordinary civilians, not public figures — since the end of Lebanon's 15-year civil war in 1990. It caught people like Nidal Ashkar, 45, who was on her way to Bible study. She lost a leg. And Leila Gemayel, 39, who was going shopping with a friend. The friend was killed, and Gemayel suffered serious burns on both legs.
The names may be meaningful only to friends and relatives who crowded into the halls and waiting areas of the tiny Serhal Hospital along a beautiful mountain road just north of Beirut. But that — apparently — was the point.
"The message is clear," said Jihad Nasr, at the hospital bedside of Gemayel, his sister-in-law. "There was no politics between these people. These are normal people. Employees. They don't even have cars."
The message, the victims and their visitors said, was to spread fear beyond the rich and powerful into everyday homes. It worked. "How am I ever going to ride a bus again?" said Rata Kuosoumati, 48, a maid who was in the first bus when the bomb went off but was not badly hurt.
Officials said bombs had been planted inside the buses, which are more like oversized minivans, as they made their morning runs. Every 10 minutes in the early morning, these privately owned buses take people between the Metn district, a primarily Christian area in the mountains, and Beirut.
In the hospital, friends and relatives said they took the attack as an act of intimidation, aimed at making people afraid to attend the Hariri memorial planned for Wednesday.
In Lebanon public memorials are never just about grieving; they are also political statements, so the anniversary was to be a chance for the pro-government forces — locked in a political battle with the Iranian- and Syrian-backed opposition, led by Hezbollah — to rally their allies.
And then came the randomness of the attack.
"It means, 'Don't come to the demonstration tomorrow,"' said Timur Guksel, former spokesman for the U.N. forces in Lebanon. "It has no meaning except to tell people, 'Don't come tomorrow."'
Leaders of the governing coalition said that despite the attack, they planned to go forward with the memorial for Hariri.
The first minibus carried about 24 passengers, mostly women, according to witnesses. As it rounded a turn, passing a vista of snowcapped mountains and hillside villages, a bomb in the back blew up. With blood, body parts, smoke and screams filling the road, a second bus slowed and then stopped. Some of the passengers got out to see the mess, and as the driver opened his door, that bus blew up too.
The first bus was a twisted wreck. The second nearly disintegrated, its roof, doors, walls and windows gone. A heavy rainfall tamped down the smoke and quickly washed the road clean of blood.
"Why are we dying in Lebanon?" said Tania Hayek, 43, who was a few feet away in a cliffside cafe called Chez George when the first bomb went off. "We want to live. We are normal people. We just want to live."
Politics — local and global — have been making that increasingly difficult for the Lebanese. Locally there is a battle for power, fueled by foreign sponsors. On one side is the Shiite group Hezbollah and its alliance with Syria and Iran. The government and the March 14 coalition are on the other side with the United States, Sunni Arab leaders and Europe.
At least six attacks have occurred since Hariri died, killing or maiming officials or prominent journalists. But the attack on Tuesday came as Lebanon confronts its worst political crisis since the end of the civil war.
Hezbollah and its allies want the ability to veto all government actions and want the government to back off supporting the international tribunal being set up by the United Nations to hear evidence in Hariri's assassination. The government has refused both demands. The investigation has implicated top Syrian officials.
That is a rough outline of what politicians have been fighting over since the Hezbollah alliance began an open-ended protest in the center of Beirut in December.
Until Tuesday, that was not really part of Dr. Michel Saliba's world, he said. Then his wife woke him to tell him the news. His brother, Shady, 25, was the driver of the second bus. Michel Saliba, 40, bought the bus for his brother so he could support his wife and year-old son.
Saliba said he rushed to the hospital as other passengers arrived. "Butchered" was how he described them.
"I saw a woman who lost both legs, someone with no hands," he said. Then he went into surgery to repair his own brother's damaged skull. Later he sat outside his brother's room for hours as investigators tried to get the brother to remember details of who might have planted the bomb in the bus.
But he did not remember much.
"Welcome to the new Iraq," said Saliba. "I thought they would only bomb ministers and political people. We are not even part of a party. And still we are the target of this."
Contributing: Nada Bakri