TEHRAN, Iran — For Iranians whose icons since the Islamic Revolution have been stern-faced clergy, Gen. Qassem Soleimani widely represented a figure of national resilience in the face of four decades of U.S. pressure.
For the U.S. 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.
Solemani 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.
Relatively unknown in Iran until the 2003 U.S. 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 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 U.S. airstrike killed Soleimani, 62, and others as they traveled from Baghdad’s international airport early Friday morning. The Pentagon said President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. military to take “decisive defensive action to protect U.S. 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 ran out after being rumored dead several times in his life. Those incidents included 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 was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.
Iranian officials quickly vowed to take revenge amid months of tensions between Iran and the U.S. following Trump pulling out of Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers. 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 U.S. into the most dangerous situation in the region,” Hessameddin Ashena, an adviser to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, 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 U.S. State Department has said he was born in the Iranian religious capital of Qom.
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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 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.
Amid the carnage, Soleimani became known for his opposition to “meaningless deaths” on the battlefield, while still weeping at times with fervor when exhorting his men into combat, embracing each individually.
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, 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 U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.”
U.S. 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. U.S. 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, U.S. 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 U.S. and the United Nations put Soleimani on sanctions lists in 2007, though his travels continued. In 2011, U.S. 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.
The attention the West gave Soleimani only boosted his profile at home. He sat at 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 being present, which sparking a momentary 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. But Soleimani always refuse entreaties to enter politics.
Soleimani's greatest notoriety would arise from the Syrian civil war and the rapid expansion of the Islamic State group. Iran, a major backer of Assad, sent Soleimani into Syria several times to lead attacks against IS and others opposing Assad’s rule. While a U.S.-led coalition focused on airstrikes, 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.