The death of Major General Qassem Soleimani is a watershed moment, even in the long and bloody history of Middle East conflict.
- The US says Soleimani and his Quds Force were “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members”
- Soleimani led Iran’s overseas actions in the last couple of decades
- Killing him will take US tensions with Iran to a dangerous new level
The head of the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, he has long been seen by Israel and the United States as one of the most dangerous and potent figures in the region.
Qassem Soleimani had the backing of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and a hero to many Shiite Muslims.
However, he was also popular or at least respected in many quarters of the Middle East.
In a region where inept, corrupt or hypocritical leaders abound, he was seen by his supporters as charismatic and, most importantly, effective.
Twitter Sophie McNeill: HUGE HUGE news out of the Middle East. The US has just assassinated arguably what is Iran’s most important military leader.
He was responsible for running foreign military actions, coordinating a network of political and military advisers, militias and terrorist groups which have delivered Iran a decisive role stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.
General Soleimani fought for Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, reportedly leading reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines.
Back then, the US backed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its confrontation with the new Islamic republic of Iran and the Islamic revolutionaries who had deposed the Shah.
General Soleimani and his colleagues in the Iranian military built their strength in the region, supporting a range of tactics including terror attacks and also arming and training groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, which grew amidst the chaos of the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli occupation and has come to hold sway over much of the country.
But it was when the US and some allies, including Australia, toppled Saddam Hussein and invaded Iraq in 2003, that General Soleimani was presented with an historic opportunity to exert, then consolidate, unprecedented Iranian influence in Baghdad.
Iraqi dissidents and militiamen who’d been given refuge in Iran moved back into Baghdad and General Soleimani and his colleagues trained and armed new and old allies alike to launch attacks on US troops.
Underlining the significance of this period, when the US Department of Defence claimed responsibility for his killing, it accused General Soleimani and his Quds Force of being “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”
The most volatile point in the Iran conflict
The US imposed sanctions on General Soleimani in 2011, accusing him of a plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington.
But he would soon be delivered another opportunity by the instability wracking the region when Syria began to descend into civil war that same year.
General Soleimani spearheaded Iran’s efforts to shore up the government of Bashar al-Assad.
Then, when that conflict gave the Sunni Muslim extremists of the Islamic State (IS) group the chance to conquer vast tracts of territory, first in Syria and then across the border in Iraq, General Soleimani’s militias played a key role in the fightback against IS.
In an extraordinary irony, they benefited from the US air strikes that played such a crucial role in defeating the terror group, and consolidated their grip on much of the country.
It was, however, always a begrudging, parallel effort and we are now witnessing the most volatile point in a conflict that has been slowly reigniting for some time.
Soleimani ‘approved the attack on US embassy’
The US Department of Defence accused General Soleimani of orchestrating, “attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months — including the attack on December 27th — culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel.”
“General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week,” it said in a statement.
In the December 27 incident, a US civilian contractor was killed during a rocket attack on a US military base in northern Iraq.
The US military retaliated by carrying out air strikes against Iranian-linked militia fighters in Iraq and Syria. This in turn led to hundreds of pro-Iranian protesters and militia attempting to storm the US embassy in Baghdad on New Year’s Eve.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif called the killing “an extremely dangerous and foolish escalation,” and a former commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mohasen Rezaei, vowed “vigorous revenge on America”.
The son of a farmer, from a poor area in eastern Iran, Qassem Soleimani was softly spoken, calculating and lethal, leaving an extraordinary mark on a region accustomed to the failings of big men with big mouths.
When news of his death was announced in Baghdad, some protesters, who had been on the streets opposing Iranian influence, celebrated.
But the revenge promised by his supporters could come on any of the many fronts where he has built Iran’s power and influence.