TEHRAN, Iran — For Iranians whose icons since the Islamic Revolution have been stern-faced clergy, Gen. Qassem Soleimani was a popular figure of national resilience in the face of four decades of US pressure.
For the US and Israel, he was a shadowy figure in command of Iran’s proxy forces, responsible for fighters in Syria backing President Bashar Assad and for the deaths of American troops in Iraq. In a rare interview aired on Iranian state television in October, he said he was in Lebanon for almost the entire 34-day duration of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, overseeing the conflict. Western leaders saw him as central to Iran’s ties with terror groups including Hezbollah and Hamas. He was active in Iraq, central to its current politics, and consequently loathed by Iraqis who have demonstrated for months against a government they see as beholden to Iran.
A 2013 New Yorker profile quoted John Maguire, a former CIA officer in Iraq, describing him as “the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today.” The piece said that since he took over the Quds Force, whose numbers it put at 10,000-20,000, Soleimani “has sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran’s favor, working as a power broker and as a military force: assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq.”
Penned by Dexter Filkins, the article described Soleimani flying repeatedly to Damascus and assuming “personal control of the Iranian intervention” that ultimately enabled Assad to retain power — orchestrating arms shipments, deploying Hezbollah, turning the tide of the conflict in Assad’s favor. The article also quoted the late Mossad chief Meir Dagan calling him “politically clever.” Inside the Iranian regime, “he has a relationship with everyone,” said Dagan. “When I called Dagan… and mentioned Soleimani’s name,” wrote Filkins, “there was a long pause on the line. ‘Ah,’ he said, in a tone of weary irony, ‘a very good friend.’”
“To Middle Eastern Shiites, he is James Bond, Erwin Rommel and Lady Gaga rolled into one,” wrote former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack in a profile for Time’s 100 most influential people in 2017. “To the West, he is… responsible for exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution, supporting terrorists, subverting pro-Western governments and waging Iran’s foreign wars,” Pollack added.
A Foreign Policy profile last year, headlined “Iran’s Deadly Puppet Master,” called him “arguably the most powerful and unconstrained actor in the Middle East today.”
And for US President Donald Trump, who authorized his killing in a missile strike in Baghdad early Friday, Soleimani was a terror chief “directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people” who “should have been taken out many years ago!”
General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more…but got caught! He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2020
The US airstrike killed Soleimani, 62, and others as they traveled from Baghdad’s international airport early Friday morning. The Pentagon said Trump ordered the US military to take “decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing” a man once referred to by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a “living martyr of the revolution.”
Soleimani’s luck finally ran out after he was rumored dead several times over the years. There was a 2006 airplane crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of Assad. More recently, rumors circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani had been killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.
Born March 11, 1957, Iranians say Soleimani grew up near the mountainous and historic Iranian town of Rabor, famous for its forests, its apricot, walnut and peach harvests and its brave soldiers. The US State Department has said he was born in the Iranian religious capital of Qom.
Little is known about his childhood, though Iranian accounts suggest Soleimani’s father was a peasant who received some land under the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the monarch who was toppled in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
By the time he was 13, Soleimani was working construction, later as an employee of the Kerman Water Organization. After Iran’s Islamic Revolution swept the shah from power, Soleimani joined the Revolutionary Guard. He deployed to Iran’s northwest with forces that put down Kurdish unrest.
Soon after, Iraq invaded Iran and began the two countries’ long, bloody eight-year war. The fighting killed more than 1 million people and saw Iran send waves of lightly armed troops into minefields and the fire of Iraqi forces, including teenage soldiers. Solemani’s unit and others also were attacked by Iraqi chemical weapons.
Amid the carnage, Soleimani became known for his opposition to “meaningless deaths” on the battlefield. He wept with fervor when exhorting his men into combat, embracing each individually.
For several years after the Iraq-Iran war, Soleimani largely disappeared from public view, something analysts attribute to his wartime disagreements with Hashemi Rafsanjani, who served as Iran’s president from 1989 to 1997. But after Rafsanjani, Soleimani became head of the Quds Force, responsible for the Islamic Republic’s campaigns abroad. He also grew so close to Khamenei that the Supreme Leader officiated the wedding of the general’s daughter.
Relatively unknown in Iran until the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Soleimani’s popularity and mystique grew after American officials called for his killing. A decade and a half later, Soleimani had become Iran’s most recognizable battlefield commander, ignoring calls to enter politics but growing as powerful, if not more, than its civilian leadership.
‘I control the policy’
As chief of the Quds Force — or Jerusalem Force — Solemani oversaw the Guard’s foreign operations and soon would come to the attention of Americans following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
In secret US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, US officials openly discussed Iraqi efforts to reach out to Soleimani to stop rocket attacks on the highly secured Green Zone in Baghdad in 2009. Another cable in 2007 outlines then-Iraqi President Jalal Talabani offering a US official a message from Soleimani acknowledging having “hundreds” of agents in the country while pledging, “I swear on the grave of (the late Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini I haven’t authorized a bullet against the US.”
US officials at the time dismissed Soleimani’s claim as they saw Iran as both an arsonist and a fireman in Iraq, controlling some Shiite militias while simultaneously stirring dissent and launching attacks. US forces blamed the Quds Force for an attack in Karbala that killed five American troops, as well as for training and supplying the bomb makers whose improvised bombs made IED — improvised explosive device — a dreaded acronym among soldiers.
In a 2010 speech, US Gen. David Petraeus recounted a message from Soleimani he said explained the scope of Iranian’s powers.
“He said, ‘Gen. Petreaus, you should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan,’” Petraeus said.
The US and the United Nations put Soleimani on sanctions lists in 2007, though he continued to travel. In 2011, US officials named him as a defendant in an outlandish Quds Force plot to allegedly hire a purported Mexican drug cartel assassin to kill a Saudi diplomat. The 2013 New Yorker profile, which detailed that 2011 plot, also noted that, a year earlier, according to Western officials, Soleimani’s Quds Force and Hezbollah “launched a new campaign against American and Israeli targets — in apparent retaliation for the covert effort to slow down the Iranian nuclear program.” Since then, it added, “Soleimani has orchestrated attacks in places as far flung as Thailand, New Delhi, Lagos and Nairobi — at least thirty attempts in the past two years alone.”
“Over the years, the Quds Force has built an international network of assets, some of them drawn from the Iranian diaspora, who can be called on to support missions,” the New Yorker article reported. “They’re everywhere,” it quoted a Middle Eastern security official saying. The piece also linked the Quds Force, in the years just before Soleimani took command in 1998, to the two major terrorist attacks on Jewish targets in Buenos Aires — at the Israeli Embassy in 1992, where 29 people died, and at the AMIA Jewish community center in 1994, where 85 people were killed.
More popular than the politicians
The attention the West gave Soleimani only boosted his profile at home. He sat by Khamenei’s side at key meetings. He famously met Syria’s Assad in February together with the supreme leader — but without Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, sparking a short-lived resignation by the top Iranian diplomat.
Polling data routinely showed Soleimani rated more favorably than other public figures, according to the Center for International Studies at the University of Maryland. A survey published in 2018 found Soleimani had a popularity rating of 83 percent, beating President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif. But Soleimani refused entreaties to enter politics.
In his TV interview last October, Soleimani described at considerable length what he claimed an effort by Israeli aircraft to target him and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut. He said he and Nasrallah hid from what he described as Israeli heat-tracking drones under a tree at one point, and later used underground garages to switch cars and lose Israel’s tail.
On Friday, he was less successful. As the vehicle in which he was traveling headed down a Baghdad airport access road, the US drone unleashed four Hellfire missiles — obliterating the car and those inside it.