Sunday 26 January 2020

Warrior 'angel' who masterminded attacks in Lebanon and suppressed Syrian uprising

War veteran: Qasem Soleimani fought in Iran-Iraq War. Photo: AFP PHOTO / KHAMENEI.IR
War veteran: Qasem Soleimani fought in Iran-Iraq War. Photo: AFP PHOTO / KHAMENEI.IR

Josh White and Roland Oliphant

His face was plastered on billboards across Iran and he was considered one of the most powerful figures in the Middle East.

Qasem Soleimani, killed yesterday by a US airstrike on his car at Baghdad airport, was a shadowy character about whom little was known.

The mastermind of Iran's recent campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Soleimani was the leader of the elite Quds force. Charming, quiet and softly spoken, he was often compared to the Scarlet Pimpernel.

In 2015, 'The Wall Street Journal' compared him to Erwin Rommel, the enigmatic Nazi general. "All of the important people in Iraq go to see him," Saleh al-Mutlaq, a former deputy prime minister, said in 2011. "People are mesmerised by him - they see him like an angel."

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Soleimani was born into a poor farming family in Iran's eastern Kerman province in 1957. At 22, fired up by the Iranian Revolution, he joined the Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary group raised by Ayatollah Khomeini. The formation was soon tested in battle when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, sparking an eight-year war.

Soleimani served throughout the war and proved a daring and talented soldier, running clandestine missions inside Iraq and achieving a brigade command before the age of 30.

The war was a formative experience, instilling a suspicion of the West over its support for Saddam, and convincing him the military could have swept through Iraq if only the government in Tehran had shown more resolve.

In the late-1990s he was given command of the Quds force, the overseas covert warfare unit. His influence was most felt in Iraq, where he fought a proxy war with US forces following the 2003 invasion, by supplying weapons to Shia groups. The Iraqi militias, as well as groups such as Hamas in Gaza and Hizbollah in Lebanon, were shaped into proxy armies for use in a potential regional war with Israel, the US or Saudi Arabia.

In Syria, the Quds were involved in suppressing the 2011 uprising against Bashar al-Assad and running military assistance to his regime.

Meanwhile, he was suspected of funding elaborate espionage and terrorism plots. One involved paying a Mexican drugs cartel to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US in a Washington DC restaurant.

The plan fell apart when the cartel member turned out to be an informant for US law enforcement. In the last decade he organised operations from New Delhi to Thailand, Lagos and Nairobi.

He was promoted to major general by supreme leader and close friend Ali Khamenei.

In 2015, a number of conservative bloggers tried to rally support for Soleimani to run for president.

He later publicly renounced any such ambition.

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