January 02, 2020

Qassim Soleimani: The shadowy Iranian general who undermined Washington for decades
His face was plastered on billboards across Iran and he was considered one of the most powerful figures in the Middle East. Qassim Soleimani, killed on Friday morning by a US airstrike on his car at Baghdad airport, was a shadowy character about whom not much is known - except his astonishing influence. The mastermind of Iran's recent campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Soleimani was the leader of the republic's elite Quds force, a black-ops squadron whose objectives and tactics have long infuriated and compromised American policy in the region. Charming, quiet and softly-spoken, he has been compared to Keyser Soze and 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." Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, centre, attends a meeting in Tehran, Iran Credit: AP Soleimani joined the Revolutionary Guard in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution which ousted the Shah. Rising quickly through the ranks, he served as a leader of a company that sought to repel Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980. He became commander of the 41st Sarallah Division while still not 30 and by the mid-Eighties he was organising clandestine missions inside Iraq to undermine the Hussein regime, built on relationships with Iraqi Kurds. After the war he was commander of the Revolutionary Guard in Kerman Province, his home region, where he fought against the trafficking of opium from across the border in Afghanistan. In 1999, when students marched on Tehran in mass protests, he personally wrote to President Mohammad Khatami  and threatened a coup against the government, saying the military would do what the Iranian government was failing to do and suppress the rebellion. In 2002, a few months before the US invaded Iraq to depose Hussein, Soleimani was given command of the Quds force, Iran's elite military unit whose stated goal is to protect the revolution's victory but has been largely concerned with spreading the regime's policies across the region. Iran | Comment and analysis His influence in Iraq was extraordinary. Subsequently, he was a thorn in the side of the Pentagon. General David Petraeus, the former CIA director, said in 2011 that Soleimani and his Quds undermined much of Washington's work with Iraq's Shia Muslims and had undone US diplomatic and military efforts in Lebanon. The US was largely fighting a proxy war in Iraq against Soleimani's Quds. Such was the extent of Soleimani's grip on operations in Iran and the Middle East that General Petraeas said: "It makes diplomacy difficult if you think that you're going to do the traditional means of diplomacy by dealing with another country's ministry of foreign affairs because in this case, it is not the ministry. It is a security apparatus." Soleimani mobilised support among Shia and Sunni groups, including Hamas, and was alleged to have been a de facto leader of Hezbollah's military wing in the late Nineties. Soleimani had emerged from the shadows in recent years, becoming a popular figure in Iran. Rumours grew that he was planning to run for president Credit: Ebrahim NoroozI/AP In Syria, the Quds were believed to be involved in suppressing the uprising, a move which brought US sanctions on Soleimani. Iran supports the survival of the Assad regime. In 2011, he was promoted to Major General of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, his close friend. Khamenei has described Soleimani as a "living martyr". Soleimani was killed alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary force with close ties to Iran and a long-time ally of Soleimani. The Hashed is a network of mostly Shia units, many of whom have links with Tehran but which have are officially part of Iraq's state security forces. The units joined forces to fight the Islamic State group in 2014, following many years of building fighting experience in Iraq, including against the US - though for once their objectives matched those of Washington. Soleimani helped to liberate the Iraqi city of Tikrit from Islamic State control in 2015 Credit: Alaa Al-Marjani/REUTERS Soleimani played a key role in the capture of Tikrit, an Iraqi stronghold for Islamic State that had vital strategic value. In recent years, he had started to emerge from the shadows. His popularity grew in Iran, where he was a cult figure and the subject of documentaries and even pop songs. In March 2015 a video made by Shia militia fighters in Iraq showed soldiers painting the Soleimani’s portrait on a wall and marching in front of it, backed by a stirring score. The BBC reported in 2015 that a campaign among conservative bloggers tried to rally support for Soleimani - whom they dubbed honest and incorruptible - to run for president. Some months later he disappointed them, claiming rumours about his candidacy were “divisive reports by the enemy" and he promised to "always remain a simple soldier serving Iran and the Islamic Revolution”. Listed by Washington as a known terrorist, he continued to be a powerful enemy of the United States until the end of his life. In 2018, in a spat with Mr Trump, he threatened the Americans with a war in which Iran would “destroy all that you possess".  “You will start this war but we will be the ones to impose its end," he warned. "Therefore you have to be careful about insulting the Iranian people and the president of our Republic. "We are near you, where you can't even imagine."
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