WASHINGTON - A judge blamed Iran for the 1983 terrorist bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines in Beirut and said Tehran would have to pay damages to survivors and relatives.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled Friday that the suicide truck bombing was carried out by the terrorist group Hezbollah with the approval and funding of senior Iranian officials.
"Based on the evidence presented by the expert witnesses at trial, the court finds that it is beyond question that Hezbollah and its agents received massive material and technical support from the Iranian government," Lamberth wrote.
Under Lamberth's ruling, a special master will decide how much the 153 families who filed a lawsuit should collect in compensatory and punitive damages.
"I literally sank to my knees in tears when I heard the news," said Lynn Smith Derbyshire, one of the plaintiffs in the case, who lost her older brother in the Beirut explosion.
"I just feel like it's justice," she said. "I'm just so grateful that we've been able to prove in a court of law that there's a guilty party."
The lawsuit was filed under a 1996 U.S. law that allows Americans to sue nations that the U.S. State Department considers sponsors of terrorism for damages suffered in terrorist acts.
Lamberth entered a default judgment against the Iranian government last December after it failed to respond to the lawsuit, but the court was required to examine the facts before finding Tehran liable for damages. Friday's ruling was based on evidence presented at a two-day trial in March.
Other Americans have won judgments against Iran and other countries named as sponsors of terrorism, but the U.S. government has been reluctant to seize foreign assets to pay the judgments, fearing international retaliation.
Instead, Congress has approved payment of more than $300 million from the Treasury Department to compensate a specific list of terrorism victims who have already won judgments against Iran. Former Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson, who was held captive in Lebanon for nearly seven years, secured a judgment against Iran and collected $26.2 million in frozen assets.
Thomas Fortune Fay, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said there is a chance Congress will pass new legislation to allow his clients to collect some of the damages they expect the court to award in this case. But he said the Bush administration should allow plaintiffs to file claims against up to $4 billion in frozen Iranian assets left in the United States.
"They can have a very strong deterrent to terrorism if they just stand back and let us go after the assets," Fay said.
The U.S. Marines in Beirut were part of a multinational peacekeeping mission intended to provide stability during the civil war between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon. Lamberth heard evidence that the bombing was part of Iran's effort to stamp out the U.S. presence in Lebanon by killing American diplomats and servicemen and kidnapping civilians.
Perhaps the most powerful evidence presented was the testimony of retired Adm. James Lyons, who was deputy chief of naval operations in 1983. He said U.S. officials intercepted a message from the Iranian ambassador to Syria, who instructed terrorist leaders "to take spectacular action against the U.S. Marines" in Beirut.
Based on the evidence, Lamberth found the attack was approved by Iran's top government officials - including the late supreme cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
In the early hours of Oct. 23, 1983, a truck carrying more than 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) of explosives sped past a sentry post and exploded in the center of the Marine barracks as many servicemen slept. The blast was the largest non-nuclear explosion that had ever been detonated on Earth.
Then-President Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from Lebanon a few months after the bombing.