For Iranians whose icons since the Islamic Revolution have been stern-faced clergy, the slain Gen. Qassem Soleimani widely represented a figure of national resilience in the face of four decades of U.S. pressure. 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."
For the U.S. and Israel, he was a shadowy figure in command of Iran's proxy forces, responsible for backing President Bashar Assad in Syria and for the deaths of American troops in Iraq.
Born March 11, 1957, Soleimani was said in his homeland to have grown up near the mountainous and the historic Iranian town of Rabor, famous for its forests, its apricot, walnut and peach harvests and its brave soldiers. The U.S. State Department has said he was born in the Iranian religious capital of Qom. Little is known about his childhood, though Iranian accounts suggest Soleimani's father was a peasant who received a piece of land under the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi but later became encumbered by debts. After the success of the Iranian revolution against the Shah, he joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in early 1980 which was founded by the order of Khameini in November 1979.
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 foreign campaigns. After the Iraq-Iran war, Soleimani largely disappeared from public view for several years, something analysts attribute to his wartime disagreements with Hashemi Rafsanjani, who would serve as Iran's president from 1989 to 1997. But after Rafsanjani, Soleimani became head of the Quds force. He also grew so close to Khamenei that the Supreme Leader officiated the wedding of the general's daughter. As chief of the Quds Force, Solemani oversaw the Guard's foreign operations and soon would come to the attention of Americans following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
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 becoming as powerful, if not more, than its civilian leadership.
Soleimani was declared a "terrorist and supporter of terrorism" by the U.S. He was among the Iranian individuals who were sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council resolution 1747. On May 18, 2011, the U.S. imposed more sanctions on him as he was accused of providing support and arms to the Syrian regime. Also, on June 24, 2011, an official statement by the European Union said that European sanctions were imposed on three Iranian commanders of the Revolutionary Guards including Soleimani for supporting the Assad regime in his suppression to the Syrian uprising.
The attention the West gave Soleimani only boosted his profile at home. He sat at Khamenei's side at key meetings. He famously met Syria's Assad last February together with the supreme leader — but without Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif being present, which sparking a momentary resignation by the top Iranian diplomat. Polling data routinely showed Soleimani rated more favorably than other public figures, according to the Center for International Studies at the University of Maryland. But Soleimani always refused entreaties to enter politics.