Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by a US airstrike ordered by President Donald Trump at Baghdad International Airport on Friday, was hailed as a hero in Iran -- brave, charismatic and beloved by the troops.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, once called him a "living martyr of the revolution." But the United States viewed Iran's top general as a ruthless killer.
One of Iran's most powerful men, Soleimani cut a highly controversial figure. He was head of the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, an elite unit that handles Iran's overseas operations -- and one deemed to be a foreign terrorist organization by the US.
Having started his front line military career in the Iran-Iraq war during the early 1980s, Soleimani rose to prominence to become an indispensable figure in Iran, playing an instrumental role in spreading its influence in the Middle East.
Khamenei made Soleimani head of the Quds Force in 1998, a position in which he kept a low profile for years while he strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad’s government, and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.
In the past few years, he has acquired a more public standing, with fighters and commanders in Iraq and Syria posting images on social media of him on the battlefield, his beard and hair always impeccably trimmed.
He was killed along with top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Both men were seen as heroes in Iran’s fight against its enemies and state television heaped them with praise shortly after their deaths were announced.
"He's been in combat his entire life. His soldiers love him. He's a quiet, charismatic guy, a strategic genius and a tactical operator," Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst, told CNN.
"These are all the kind of things, looking at him from the enemy's perspective, (that) is going to create a great deal of angst in this part of the world."
The Pentagon says Soleimani and his troops were "responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more."
Known as Iran's "shadow commander," Soleimani -- who had led the Quds Force since 1998 -- was the mastermind of Iranian military operations in Iraq and Syria.
During the war against ISIS, Soleimani was also often reported to be on the battlefields in Iraq, slipping in and out of the country to help Shia Iraqi forces battle extremist militants.
U.S. Treasury officials say Soleimani was involved in a notorious plot on American soil, overseeing Quds Force officers who in 2011 tried and failed to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubeir at Washington's upscale Cafe Milano.
In a statement on Friday, the U.S. Defense Department said Soleimani was "actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region."
It blamed the Iranian general for orchestrating attacks on coalition bases in Iraq in recent months, including an attack on December 27 that culminated in the deaths of an American contractor and Iraqi personnel.
Also killed in the US airstrike at Baghdad International Airport early Friday was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the Iran-backed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
PMF supporters and members attempted to storm the US embassy in Baghdad in a separate incident this week. According to the Pentagon, Soleimani also approved that attack.
Formed in 2014 to fight ISIS, the PMF is a Shia paramilitary force made up of former militias with close ties to Iran. It was recognized under a 2016 Iraqi law as an independent military force that answers directly to the prime minister.
Iran’s highest military honor
Soleimani’s growing authority within Iran’s military establishment was apparent in 2019 when Khamenei awarded him the Order of Zolfiqar medal, Iran’s highest military honor. It was the first time any commander had received the medal since the Islamic Republic was established in 1979.
In a statement after Soleimani’s death, Khamenei said harsh revenge awaited the “criminals” who killed him. His death, though bitter, would double the motivation of the resistance against the United States and Israel, the Iranian leader said.
“Soleimani is ... not a man working in an office. He goes to the front to inspect the troops and see the fighting,” a former senior Iraqi official, who asked not to be identified, said in an interview in 2014.
“His chain of command is only the Supreme Leader. He needs money, gets money. Needs munitions, gets munitions. Needs material, gets material,” the former Iraqi official said.
Soleimani was also in charge of intelligence gathering and covert military operations carried out by the Quds Force and in 2018 he publicly challenged U.S. President Donald Trump.
“I’m telling you Mr. Trump the gambler, I’m telling you, know that we are close to you in that place you don’t think we are,” said Soleimani, seen wagging an admonishing finger in a video clip distributed online.
“You will start the war but we will end it,” he said, with a checkered keffiya draped across the shoulders of his olive uniform.
Softly-spoken, Soleimani came from humble beginnings, born into an agricultural family in the town of Rabor in southeast Iran on March 11, 1957.
At 13, he traveled to the town of Kerman and got a construction job to help his father pay back loans, according to a first person account from Soleimani posted by Defa Press, a site focused on the history of Iran’s eight year war with Iraq.
When the revolution to oust the Shah began in 1978, Soleimani was working for the municipal water department in Kerman and organized demonstrations against the monarch.
He volunteered for the Revolutionary Guards and, after war with Iraq broke out in 1980, quickly rose through the ranks and went on to battle drug smugglers on the border with Afghanistan.
“Soleimani is a great listener. He does not impose himself. But he always gets what he wants,” said another Iraqi official, adding that he can be intimidating.
PUKmedia / (Reuters, CNN)