Who’s Soleimani & How Does His Killing by US Affect Middle East?

Gen Soleimani was one of the most popular figures in Iran and seen as a deadly adversary by America and its allies.

3 min read

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The head of Iran's elite Quds Force Gen Qassem Soleimani was killed in an air strike at Baghdad's international airport by US forces on Friday, 3 January, according to the Associated Press.

“The Revolutionary Guards announces that the glorious commander of Islam, haj Qassem Soleimani, following a life of servitude, was martyred in an attack by America on Baghdad airport this morning," Iran's Revolutionary Guards confirmed in a statement read out on state television.

The strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, or PMF, the officials said.

Who is Soleimani and why is the incident a turning point in the Middle East?

Follow all the updates on Quassem Soleimani here.

Soleimani’s Rise to Fame

For Iranians whose icons since the Islamic Revolution have been stern-faced clergy, Soleimani widely represented a figure of national resilience in the face of four decades of US pressure, according to the Associated Press.

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 Assad and for the deaths of American troops in Iraq.

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.

But his 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 US-led coalition focused on airstrikes, several ground victories for Iraqi forces came with photographs emerging of Soleimani leading, never wearing a flak jacket.

Where once he kept to the shadows, Soleimani in recent years had become an unlikely celebrity in Iran – replete with a huge following on Instagram.

His profile garnered attention 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.

"To Middle Eastern Shiites, he is James Bond, Erwin Rommel and Lady Gaga rolled into one," wrote former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack in a profile for Time's 100 most influential people in 2017, according to AFP.

"To the West, he is... responsible for exporting Iran's Islamic revolution, supporting terrorists, subverting pro-Western governments and waging Iran's foreign wars," Pollack added.

Soleimani’s Influence on Regional Politics

With Iran roiled by protests and economic problems at home, and the US once again mounting pressure from the outside, some Iranians had even called for Soleimani to enter domestic politics.

While he had dismissed rumours he might one day run for president, the general had played a decisive role in the politics of Iran's neighbour, Iraq.

Even when it came to talks on forming a government, he was pivotal in pressuring Iraq's Kurds to abandon their plans for independence after an ill-judged referendum last September.

His influence had deep roots, since Soleimani was already leading the Quds Force when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

"My Iranian interlocutors on Afghanistan made clear that while they kept the foreign ministry informed, ultimately it was General Soleimani that would make the decisions," former US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told the BBC in 2013.

His firm but quiet presence played perfectly to the Iranian penchant for dignified humility.

A survey published in 2018 by IranPoll and the University of Maryland – one of the few considered reliable by analysts – found Soleimani had a popularity rating of 83 percent, 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?" Soleimani said in a speech to mark World Mosque Day in 2017.

(With inputs from the Associated Press & AFP.)

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