QASEM Soleimani, the Iranian general killed in an airstrike in Baghdad, was in the eyes of the US a shadowy figure who was responsible for the deaths of American troops in Iraq.
The 62-year-old was amongst up to seven killed in the early hours of Friday at Baghdad International Airport in a military operation approved by US President, Donald Trump.
General Soleimani was head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, which was responsible for the Islamic Republic’s foreign campaigns.
Soleimani was relatively unknown in Iran until the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, but his popularity and mystique grew out of American officials calling for his killing.
By the time it came, he had become Iran’s most recognisable battlefield commander and as powerful, if not more, than its civilian leadership.
Once referred to by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a “living martyr of the revolution”, General Soleimani was rumoured to be dead several times in his life, including a 2006 plane crash in north-western Iran and a 2012 bombing in Damascus.
“Trump through his gamble has dragged the US into the most dangerous situation in the region,” an adviser to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, Hessameddin Ashena, wrote on the social media, Telegram.
Born on March 11, 1957, General Soleimani is reported to have grown up near the mountainous and historic Iranian town of Rabor, famous for its forests, its apricot, walnut and peach harvests and its brave soldiers.
The US State Department has said he was born in the Iranian religious capital of Qom.
While little is known about his childhood, Iranian accounts suggest his father was a peasant who received a piece of land under the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, but later became encumbered by debts.
By the time he was 13, he was working in construction, later as an employee of the Kerman Water Organisation.
But Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution swept the shah from power and General Soleimani joined the Revolutionary Guard in its wake, and he was soon deployed to the country’s north west to put down Kurdish unrest following the revolution.
During the bloody, eight-year war between Iraq and Iran, he became known for his opposition to “meaningless deaths” on the battlefield and was known to sometimes weep with fervour when exhorting his men into combat, embracing each individually.
After the Iraq-Iran war, he largely disappeared from public view for several years but would go on to become head of the Quds Force, and he grew so close to Ayatollah Khamenei that the Supreme Leader officiated the wedding of the general’s daughter.
As chief of the Quds – or Jerusalem – Force, General Soleimani soon came to the attention of Americans following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
US officials at the time saw Iran as both an arsonist and a fireman in Iraq, controlling some Shiite militias while simultaneously stirring dissent and launching attacks.
They would blame the Quds Force for an attack in Karbala that killed five American troops, as well as for training and supplying the bomb makers whose improvised explosive devices made IED a dreaded acronym among soldiers.
In a speech in 2010, US General David Petraeus recounted a message from General Soleimani in which he said: “You should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan’.”
The US and the United Nations placed him on sanctions lists in 2007 and in 2011.
US officials also named him as a defendant in an outlandish Quds Force plot to allegedly hire a purported Mexican drug cartel assassin to kill a Saudi diplomat.
But his greatest notoriety would arise from the Syrian civil war and the rapid expansion of so-called Islamic State (IS).
Iran, a major backer of Assad, sent General Soleimani into Syria several times to lead attacks against IS and others opposing Assad’s rule.
While a US-led coalition focused on air strikes, several ground victories for Iraqi forces came with photographs emerging of General Soleimani leading, never wearing a flak jacket.
“Soleimani has taught us that death is the beginning of life, not the end of life,” one Iraqi militia commander said.