Major General Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander, who was killed in a US strike at Baghdad International airport Friday, was the long-serving head of Iran’s Quds (“Jerusalem”) Force and has been seen as a deadly adversary by America and its allies.
One of the most popular figures in Iran, Soleimani is known as the most powerful general in the Middle East and has been repeatedly touted as a possible presidential candidate.
Although revered in his home country and feared on battlefields across the Middle East, Soleimani remains virtually unknown in the West. It can be said that today’s Iran cannot be fully understood without first understanding Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani has been responsible for the creation of an arc of influence—which Iran terms its “Axis of Resistance”— extending from the Gulf of Oman through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
In the 1980s, Soleimani survived the horror of Iran’s long war with Iraq to take control of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, responsible for the Islamic Republic’s foreign campaigns.
Soleimani, who was relatively unknown in Iran until the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, gained popularity after American officials called for his killing. After a decade and a half later, Soleimani had become Iran’s most recognisable battlefield commander, ignoring calls to enter politics but becoming as powerful, if not more, than its civilian leadership.
Soleimani wielded his regional clout publicly since 2018 when it was revealed that he had direct involvement in top-level talks over the formation of Iraq’s government. He has been in and out of Baghdad ever since, most recently last month as parties sought to form a new government.
In recent years, Soleimani has gained a huge following on Instagram. His profile rose suddenly when he was pushed forward as the public face of Iran’s intervention in the Syrian conflict from 2013, appearing in battlefield photos, documentaries — and even being featured in a music video and animated film.
According to the AFP, Soleimani had, in a rare interview aired on Iranian state television in October, said he was in Lebanon during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war to oversee the conflict.
According to a survey published in 2018 by IranPoll and the University of Maryland, Soleimani had a popularity rating of 83 per cent, beating President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Western leaders saw him as central to Iran’s ties with militia groups, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas.
Part of his appeal was the suggestion he might bridge Iran’s bitter social divides on issues such as its strict “hijab” clothing rules. “If we constantly use terms such as ‘bad hijab’ and ‘good hijab’, reformist or conservative… then who is left? They are all people. Are all your children religious? Is everybody the same? No, but the father attracts all of them,” Soleimani said in a speech to mark World Mosque Day in 2017.
Born March 11, 1957, Soleimani hails from a village in the mountains of Kerman Province, a region in Iran’s southeast, not far from the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. 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 a piece of land under the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, but later became encumbered by debts.
By the time he was 13, Soleimani began working in construction, later as an employee of the Kerman Water Organization. Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution swept the shah from power and Soleimani joined the Revolutionary Guard in its wake. He was deployed to Iran’s northwest with forces that put down Kurdish unrest following the revolution. 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 came under attack by Iraqi chemical weapons as well.