By all accounts, Qassem Soleimani is not a brash man. His humble background from a poor village in Iran’s Kerman province would not immediately make him a likely target for United States ire. His decades in the top ranks of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, however, do.
Soleimani left his roots in 1979 soon after the Iranian Revolution unfolded. He quickly became a committed follower of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic republic’s founder. Soleimani then joined the Guards, a Khomeini invention that has evolved into a powerful and secretive organisation, and which to this day is tasked with protecting the Iranian revolution.
The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) was when Soleimani began to rise in stature. One of his early tasks was ferrying water to front-line positions. He soon took charge of a rifle company where his leadership earned him a reputation for bravery. There were also reports that he was injured during the war.
Sami Al Askari says he met Soleimani a number of times whilst working as chief of staff to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. He notes that despite Soleimani’s rank of Major-General in the Quds force, the Guards’ foreign wing, he had “never met him with uniform on, he was always wearing civilian clothes and you would never address him as General – just Haji Qassem”.
Mr Al Askari says that part of the general’s power stemmed from making others feel significant. When he speaks to you, he “puts it as though asking for advice or opinion — this is his way. It makes you feel that you are in the same boat as him”.
He understands Arabic too, but Al Askari, who last met him at least four times, says he only spoke in Farsi in meetings.
Others say his influence comes from his close relationship with Iran’s current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who took over in Tehran when Khomeini died in 1989. So close are they that the supreme leader once referred to him as “a living martyr of the revolution” – a level of praise rarely heard.
In the early 1980s, Soleimani was one of the Revolutionary Guards officers sent to Lebanon to organise the formation of Shiite militia groups during the Lebanese Civil War. Out of his efforts rose the now regionally dominant Hezbollah. During his time training, directing and planning the rise of the group, he became close with the party’s now secretary-general and one of the founding members, Hassan Nasrallah. Together, the pair planned countless Hezbollah actions inside and outside of Lebanon.
Since the late 1990s, he has served in the Quds force — the Guards’ foreign operations wing — where his strategic mindset and lateral thinking has served as a critical factor in asserting Iranian presence from Beirut to Sulaymaniyah.
But it was during the later years of the US-led occupation of Iraq that Haji Qassem came into international consciousness. Upset at the prospect of US troops remaining in the country, his Quds force set about equipping militias for a deadly wave of operations against American and coalition troops. Roadside bombs built with Iranian expertise by Quds-trained Iraqi-militants killed hundreds of foreign soldiers. So big did the threat become that General David Petraeus, then head of US forces in Iraq, singled him out as “truly evil”.
More recently, Soleimani has served as the commander-in-chief of Iran's operations in support of Bashar Al Assad's regime in Syria, regularly being photographed with fighters on frontlines as far afield as Aleppo and Deir Ezzor. One US official told The New Yorker: "He's running the war himself".