TEHRAN – For Iranians whose icons since the Islamic Revolution have been stern-faced clergy, Gen. Qassem Soleimani was a popular figure of national resilience in the face of four decades of U.S. pressure.
For the U.S. 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.
Solemani survived the horror of Iran’s long war in the 1980s with Iraq to take control of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, responsible for the Islamic Republic’s campaigns abroad.
Relatively unknown in Iran until the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Soleimani's popularity and mystique grew after American officials called for his killing. A decade and a half later, Soleimani had become Iran's most recognizable battlefield commander, ignoring calls to enter politics but growing as powerful, if not more, than its civilian leadership.
“The warfront is mankind’s lost paradise,” Soleimani said in a 2009 interview. “One type of paradise that is portrayed for mankind is streams, beautiful nymphs and greeneries. But there is another kind of paradise. ... The warfront was the lost paradise of the human beings, indeed.”
A U.S. airstrike killed Soleimani, 62, and others as they traveled from Baghdad's international airport early Friday morning. The Pentagon said President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. military to take “decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing” a man once referred to by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a “living martyr of the revolution.”
Soleimani's luck finally ran out after he was rumored dead several times over the years. There was a 2006 airplane crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of Assad. More recently, rumors circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani had been killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.
As tensions between the U.S. and Iran increased after Trump pulled out of Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers, Iranian officials quickly vowed to retaliate. While Soleimani was the Guard's most prominent general, many others in its ranks have experience in waging the asymmetrical, proxy attacks for which Iran has become known.