Over the years, the head of Iran's Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, cultivated a mythical and mysterious image around himself. Who was the man behind the myths and how did he come to be known as one of the most powerful individuals in the Middle East?
The world woke up on Friday morning to the news that Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), was killed by a United States airstrike shortly after arriving in Baghdad. Over the years, Soleimani cultivated an almost mythical imagery, bolstered by the need for secrecy in the theatres he operates.
Referred to as a “living martyr” by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, Soleimani has often been viewed as Iran’s strongest hand in the Middle East. For his enemies, however, he was the instrument of Iran’s influence that subverted the governments of Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon with a parallel state and the instigator of the brutal urban warfare conducted by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) in cities held by the Syrian Opposition as well as one of the architects of the heavy-handed suppression of the Iraqi protest movement.
Soleimani’s origins start with the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1980 itself. At the time, he joined what would later become the IRGC, commanding the 41st Tharallah Unit during the Iran-Iraq War. He has been highly active in Iraq and Syria ever since and operated in conflict zones across the Middle East for virtually his entire career. He therefore became the first person to succeed the former head of the Quds Force, Ahmad Vahidi.
In becoming the head of the Quds Force, he became responsible for the operations outside Iran. Over the years, he played an active role in assisting groups that were aligned with Iran or otherwise opposed to factions that Iran opposed. To this end, he supported anti-Saddam (and subsequently, anti-US) militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, the Syrian Government after 2012 and was instrumental in shaping the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) into a fighting force. For his efforts, he attained the highest rank in the IRGC when he was promoted to general in 2011.
As an individual heavily involved in the fight against the US and its allies, Soleimani was designed a terrorist alongside the wider Quds Force. Despite this, he continued to operate across Iraq and Syria, seemingly with little hindrance.
With recent conflict escalating between the US and Iran, his death may have opened a new chapter in the region, and will have far-reaching ramifications.