Qassem Suleimani statue receives warm welcome in suburb of Beirut

But opinions on honour bestowed on Iranian general differ outside Hezbollah-controlled Ghobeiry municipality

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In the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut, Iranian general Qassem Suleimani is the second person to have both a street named after him and a statue erected in his honour. The first was Abdul Karim Khalil, a Lebanese patriot hanged by the Ottomans in 1915.

The Ghobeiry municipality unveiled the 150-kilogram bronze statue on Tuesday on a roundabout near Imam Khomeini Avenue. Iranian artist Ali Rida Haqqani worked on it for three months before donating it to the municipality.

Most locals say they love it, but many others were shocked by the mayor’s initiative to honour a controversial foreign military figure.

Suleimani, the brain behind Iran’s paramilitary activities in Syria and Iraq, was assassinated on January 3, 2020, in Baghdad by a US air strike. For Hezbollah supporters, he must be honoured as a “martyr”.

On a sunny afternoon this week, a young man was placing stickers on the statue’s base. Three steps lead up to the dead general’s torso, whose name is inscribed on a golden plaque in the shape of a mosque.

The statue exudes confidence, with its eyes looking slightly upwards and its neck wrapped in a keffiyeh, the Palestinian traditional scarf.

The visitor, 31-year-old architect Mohammad Mahdi, designed the base, and wants to make it more imposing.

“I want to deepen some of the joints to increase the feeling of height and show that this is a person of high standing,” he said.

On his phone, Mr Mahdi showed his drawings of the statue, enhanced by red lights at night. “Red because he was a martyr,” he said. “It’s like on the Lebanese flag. The two red lines represent the blood of Lebanese martyrs.”

As he scrolled through his photos, a screenshot appeared of a critical tweet by Avichay Adraee, the Israeli army’s Arabic-speaking spokesman.

“Should we congratulate you for this Iranian occupation?” wrote the Israeli soldier.

Mr Mahdi scoffed, waving his hand dismissively.

As he inspected the statue, drivers slowed down to get a closer look.

Journalists visiting Ghobeiry are accompanied by a “policeman” from the municipality “to make sure that nobody bothers them with too many questions”.

But the enthusiasm residents expressed for the statue seemed genuine. “It’s an honour for us,” said Salam Hijaz, a woman in her forties, as she walked by. “Qassem Suleimani sacrificed a lot for Lebanon.”

“He helped us in the face of Israeli aggression and takfiri terrorists,” said Abu Mahdi Nazeh, standing in front of his shop selling granite, which was closed because of the coronavirus lockdown. “A statue is nothing much compared to what he did for Lebanon.”

“Takfiri” is a disparaging term used by supporters of Hezbollah, a highly militarised Lebanese political party, to describe Sunni Muslim extremists. They say that by supporting Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in the Syrian civil war, Iran and Hezbollah shielded Lebanon from groups like ISIS. But critics say that they have the blood of civilians on their hands.

“Hezbollah seems pretty damn desperate to make late Iranian General Qassem Suleimani a local hero, despite knowing that for the majority of people in Lebanon, he simply represents a foreign power,” tweeted Lebanese analyst and civil society member Nizar Hassan on the day the statue was unveiled.

“Why are they bothering us with an Iranian general? Don’t we have enough problems already?” complained an international NGO worker who asked to remain anonymous, referring to Lebanon’s many ills: hyperinflation, devaluation of its local currency, and the lack of a fully functioning government since a deadly explosion at Beirut port last August.

But for Ghobeiry’s mayor, Maan Khalil, the municipality’s decision to install a statue honouring Suleimani simply reflects the desire of its constituents.

"We are democratically elected and we can express our opinions," he told The National.

He pointed out that some streets in Beirut still bear names of French generals who held power in Lebanon during the French mandate (1923-1943): Henri Gouraud, Maxime Weygand and Ferdinand Foch.

Mr Khalil listed all the deceased figures that the Ghobeiry municipality decided to honour with a street name: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran; Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughnieh; former Syrian president Hafez Al Assad; founder of Lebanese political party Amal, Moussa Sadr; one of his close colleagues, Iranian politician Mostafa Chamran; a Hezbollah member imprisoned for the brutal killing of an Israeli family, Samir Kuntar; former Hezbollah leader Abbas Al Moussawi; and Hadi Hassan Nasrallah, the son of the party’s current secretary general who was killed fighting Israel.

Abdul Karim Khalil, who died more than 100 years ago, was the only one with no link to Hezbollah

Not everyone in Ghobeiry agrees with Mr Khalil. Lokman Slim, a researcher and Hezbollah critic, dismissed the mayor's attempts to downplay the significance of the Suleimani statue.

“Hezbollah says it’s harmless. But it’s not. It’s occupation of public space,” he said. Mr Slim pulled out a folder filled with pictures of the general and car stickers bearing his picture.

“The day before the inauguration of the statue, they distributed this kind of stuff all over the street,” he said.

“Hezbollah used to be against statues,” Mr Slim pointed out. In the early eighties, when Hezbollah was being set up by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, it destroyed two statues in the eastern city of Baalbek representing former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and local poet Khalil Moutran.

“They have changed strategy. They need a physical statement,” Mr Slim said.