By all accounts, Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian military commander killed in a US strike, was not a brash man. There was nothing in his humble background from a poor village in Iran's Kerman province to make him a likely target for United States ire. His decades in the top ranks of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, however, did.
Suleimani 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. Suleimani then joined Revolutionary Guard, the force created by Khomeini to protecting the Iranian revolution that evolved into a powerful and secretive organisation.
The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) was when Suleimani 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 met Suleimani a number of times while working as chief of staff to former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. He recalled that despite Suleimani's rank of major general in the Guard’s foreign wing, the Quds Force, 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 said 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”.
Suleimani understands Arabic, but Mr Al Askari, who met him at least four times, said he spoke only in Farsi at meetings.
Others say his influence comes from his close relationship with Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who took over 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, Suleimani was one of the Revolutionary Guard officers sent to Lebanon to organise the formation of Shiite militia groups during the Lebanese Civil War. Out of those efforts rose the now regionally dominant Hezbollah. During his time training, directing and planning the rise of the group, Suleimani became close to one of its founding members and now secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. Together, the pair planned countless Hezbollah actions inside and outside of Lebanon.
From the late 1990s, Suleimani served in the Quds Force – the Guards’ foreign operations wing – where his strategic mindset and lateral thinking 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 he came into international consciousness. Upset at the prospect of US troops remaining in the country, his Quds Force set about equipping militias for a wave of deadly 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, Suleimani 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 front lines as far afield as Aleppo and Deir Ezzor. One US official told The New Yorker: "He's running the war himself".
Suleimani had made several visits to Baghdad in recent months as Iran's influence in the country was challenged by mass protests in the Iraqi capital and the largely Shiite south against the government of Tehran-backed politicians.
- This article was first published in 2018 and updated on January 3, 2020.