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Who was Qassem Soleimani?

January 3, 2020

From consolidating Iranian influence in Iraq to waging war against the "Islamic State" in Syria, General Qassem Soleimani was an instrumental figure for Iranian aspirations in the region. DW examines his life.

Irak Qassem Soleimani
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader

Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, considered one of Iran's most skilled and experienced battlefield commanders, was killed in a calculated US airstrike near Baghdad's international airport on Friday.

He led the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, which served as the Islamic Republic's special foreign operations unit. Despite his influential role, he kept a rather low profile for most of his life before the 2010s.

"Soleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today, and no one's ever heard of him," a former CIA officer in Iraq told The New Yorker magazine in 2013.

Read more: What is Iran's Revolutionary Guard?

A picture published by the media office of the Iraqi military's joint operations forces on their official Facebook page shows a destroyed vehicle on fire following a US strike on January 3, 2020
Qassem Soliemani's death marks a turning point for the region, according to analystsImage: AFP/Iraqi Military

The rise of Soleimani

Soleimani joined the Revolutionary Guard in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and triggered the downfall of the Shah in what would become known as the Islamic Revolution.

He managed to survive the brutal war between Iran and Iraq during the 1980s to eventually take control of the Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force in the 1990s. However, he did not rise to prominence and public notoriety until the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

"If we go back years, there are many reports that Soleimani was in charge of attacking American soldiers, going back to 2006 and 2007," Iraqi journalist Amir Musawy told DW.

The Iranian general has also been credited with overseeing Hezbollah tactics during the 2006 war with Israel as well as securing a ceasefire agreement between the Shiite militia group Madhi Army and the Iraqi military in 2008.

US officials have described him as a pivotal leader of Iranian ambitions in the region. According to former CIA director General David Petreaus, Soleimani once told him: "General Petreaus, you should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan."

Read more: Iran's military power: What you need to know

Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gestures on a stage
Soleimani was considered a close friend of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah KhameneiImage: picture-alliance/AA/ Press Office of Iranian Supreme Leader

Influential figure

Soleimani is considered the central figure in securing Iran's foothold across the region.  He managed to consolidate Iranian influence in Iraq by providing material and financial support to Shiite militias, which eventually unified as the Baghdad-sanctioned Popular Mobilization Units.

In Syria, his forces supported regime fighters in successfully contesting rebel territory and uprooting Sunni Islamist militant groups, including the "Islamic State."

"His strategy was built on the idea of forward defense, which was to push perceived threats away from the Iranian border," Sanam Vakil, deputy head of Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa program, told DW. "He built strong ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon and with militia groups in Iraq."

"This strategy expanded Iran's influence in a very non-traditional and destabilizing way across the region, but it protected Iran and gave Tehran leverage in some countries."

A momentous death

Soleimani's death weakens Iran's regional aspirations, most notably in Syria, said Hassan Hassan, a veteran Middle East analyst and author of ISIS: Army of Terror.

"The opportunities for Iran in Syria are many times bigger if combined with consolidation in Iraq and Lebanon," said Hassan in a tweet. "We've seen glimpse of what Iran can/want to do, lately. Its ability to capture Syria is now weakened."

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ls/sb (AP, Reuters)

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