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Qassem Soleimani was referred to by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a ‘living martyr of the revolution’. Photo: AP

Qassem Soleimani was Iran’s ‘living martyr’ who saw long war against US and Israel as ‘lost paradise’

  • A US air strike killed Soleimani, 62, and others as they travelled from Baghdad’s international airport early on Friday morning
  • He oversaw Iran’s foreign operations and came to the attention of Americans following the 2003 invasion of Iraq
For Iranians whose icons since the Islamic Revolution have been stern-faced clergy, Major General Qassem Soleimani widely represented a 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 al-Assad and for the deaths of American troops in Iraq.

Soleimani survived the horror of Iran’s long war in the 1980s with Iraq to take control of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, responsible for the Islamic Republic’s foreign campaigns.

Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander, killed by US ‘major decapitation strike’

Relatively unknown in Iran until the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Soleimani’s popularity and mystique grew out of American officials calling for his killing. By the time it came 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.

“The warfront is mankind’s lost paradise,” Soleimani recounted in a 2009 interview. “One type of paradise that is portrayed for mankind is streams, beautiful nymphs and greeneries. But there is another kind of paradise … The warfront was the lost paradise of the human beings, indeed.”

A US air strike killed Soleimani, 62, and others as they travelled from Baghdad’s international airport early Friday morning. The Pentagon said President Donald 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”.

Iranian officials quickly vowed to take revenge amid months of tensions between Iran and the US following Trump pulling out of Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

“Martyrdom was the reward for his ceaseless efforts in all these years,” Khamenei said on his Farsi-language Twitter account in reference to Soleimani, also declaring three days of mourning. “With him gone, God willing, his work and his path will not be stopped, but severe revenge awaits the criminals who bloodied their foul hands with his blood and other martyrs’ in last night’s incident.”

While Soleimani was the Guard’s most prominent general, many others in its ranks have experience in waging the asymmetrical, proxy attacks for which Iran has become known.

“Trump through his gamble has dragged the US into the most dangerous situation in the region,” Hessameddin Ashena, an adviser to Iran’s President Hassan Rowhani, wrote on the social media app Telegram. “Whoever put his foot beyond the red line should be ready to face its consequences.”

Born March 11, 1957, Soleimani was said in his homeland to have grown up near the mountainous and the 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 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 Organisation. 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. Soleimani’s unit and others came under attack by Iraqi chemical weapons as well.

Amid the carnage, Soleimani became known for his opposition to “meaningless deaths” on the battlefield, while still weeping at times with fervour when exhorting his men into combat, embracing each individually.

Trump through his gamble has dragged the US into the most dangerous situation in the region
Hessameddin Ashena, Iranian presidential adviser

After the Iraq-Iran war, Soleimani largely disappeared from public view for several years, something analysts attribute to his wartime disagreements with Hashemi Rafsanjani, who would serve as Iran’s president from 1989 to 1997. But after Rafsanjani, Soleimani became head of the Quds force. He also grew so close to Khamenei that the Supreme Leader officiated the wedding of the general’s daughter.

As chief of the Quds – or Jerusalem – Force, Soleimani 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 authorised a bullet against the US.”

US officials at the time dismissed Soleimani’s claim as they saw Iran as both an arsonist and a firefighter in Iraq, controlling some Shiite militias while simultaneously stirring dissent and launching attacks. US forces would blame 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 explosive devices made IED – improvised explosive device – a dreaded acronym among soldiers.

In a 2010 speech, US General David Petraeus recounted a message from Soleimani he said explained the scope of Iranian’s powers.

“He said, ‘Gen Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan,’” Petraeus said.

Qassem Soleimani warns US and Donald Trump: ‘If you begin the war, we will end it’

The US and the United Nations put Soleimani on sanctions lists in 2007, though his travels continued. In 2011, US officials also 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.

But his greatest notoriety would arise from the Syrian civil war and the rapid expansion of Islamic State (Isis). Iran, a major backer of Assad, sent Soleimani into Syria several times to lead attacks against Isis and others opposing Bashar al-Assad’s rule. While a US-led coalition focused on air strikes, several ground victories for Iraqi forces came with photographs emerging of Soleimani leading, never wearing a flak jacket.

“Soleimani has taught us that death is the beginning of life, not the end of life,” one Iraqi militia commander said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Soleimani, the general who became Iran icon