Qassem Soleimani’s Complex Legacy in Iraq
Black-clad Iranian women react as they take part in an anti-US rally to protest the killings of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Tehran on January 4, 2020. (ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
For decades, working his way up through Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Qassem Soleimani crafted a reputation as a brilliant tactician and devout believer in Islamic revolution. Known for inspiring fighters and brokering deals, he was a powerful, unparalleled enemy of Kurdish separatists, the Taliban, ISIS — and ultimately, the United States.
On Jan. 3, the 62-year-old major general was killed by a targeted U.S. airstrike near Baghdad’s airport. The attack also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior Iraqi military leader and Soleimani ally. Their deaths stunned the international community, and raised fears of retaliation against the U.S.
Throughout Soleimani’s rise, FRONTLINE has reported on the complex balance of power and politics throughout the Middle East. In films such as Bitter Rivals and Iraq Uncovered, Iran’s role in training, organizing and funding powerful Shia militias in Iraq and elsewhere — a project organized and championed by Soleimani — has been a constant, deadly thread snaking through unrest in the region.
“Qassem Soleimani has a great personality, he is humble, he has great political intelligence,” Qais Khazali, the commander of prominent Iraqi Shia militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq told FRONTLINE’s Martin Smith in July 2017. “He still has the jihadi spirit, his revolutionary soul.”
Few English-language sources offer a full record of Soleimani’s life. But one 2011 biography for the American Enterprise Institute for Policy and Research, which draws largely from Iranian sources, offers key details of the man who became one of the region’s most influential powerbrokers. The report says Soleimani was born in 1957, and raised near the border of Afghanistan in the mountains of southeastern Iran. He worked as a construction worker and contractor in his youth, and became involved with Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1976. Soon after, he joined the IRGC, a military force tasked with exporting the Islamic revolution beyond Iran.
For eight years during the 1980s, Soleimani fought on the frontlines of the Iran-Iraq war. When that war ended, he was tasked with taking on drug cartels and narcotics smugglers into Iran, the report said. By the 1990s, his star was steadily rising, and he was appointed head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, an elite special forces unit specializing in terrorism and clandestine operations.
After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Soleimani began supporting Shia militias in the country, which countered a growing Sunni insurgency and launched countless deadly attacks against American forces in the country. These fighters would later be deployed to fight ISIS in Syria.
In spring 2008, Soleimani sent General David Petraeus, then the top general of U.S. forces in Iraq, a message. “You should know that I… control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan,” he said, according to an account by Petraeus. At the time, according to leaked Department of State diplomatic cables, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad considered Soleimani “the point man” for Iran’s policy in Iraq, “with authority second only to Supreme Leader [Ali] Khamenei.”
Soleimani has long been considered a heroic figure in Iran, Afshon Ostovar, an Iran expert and assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, told FRONTLINE in August 2017. “When American forces left Iraq in 2011, that was seen as Soleimani’s victory as much as it was Iran’s victory,” he said.
The commander’s reputation continued to spread beyond his military prowess. Known for his close-trimmed silver beard, he was seen as having special access to Khamenei, and idealized by supporters as a pious, humble believer.
“He was known to live in a very small barren apartment,” said Jonathan Cristol, a research fellow at Adelphi University. “In a society that does have a corruption problem, he was seen as above reproach.”
Early in the last decade, as ISIS began its violent sweep across the Middle East, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq exploded with recruits, which rose from around 4,000 fighters in 2010 to an estimated 60,000 four years later. (Muhandis, who was killed alongside Soleimani, was the deputy commander of Popular Mobilization Front, a Iran-militia-based Iraqi group founded to fight ISIS.)
Before the U.S. joined the war against ISIS in Iraq, Iran-sponsored Shia militias helped keep the violent caliphate at bay. One condition of the Americans entering that war was that the Iraq government cut ties with the militias, and even when American forces entered the fray in late 2017, senior U.S. officials were wary of aligning with the groups. As FRONTLINE reported in Iraq Uncovered, some of the militias were implicated in human rights abuses against Sunni Muslims. But once ISIS was driven from Iraq, the Iran-supported Shia militias continued to grow in power and influence.
Just last year, Khamenei awarded Soleimani with Iran’s highest medal of honor.
The military commander’s death will have far-reaching implications in the region. “This is a much bigger deal than [the killings of] Osama bin Laden or Baghdadi,” said Cristol. “Taking out Soleimani is like taking out Kissinger during Vietnam.” In the past few years, he added, Soleimani’s Iran-trained militias have been increasingly folded into Iraq’s government.
“What the United States did yesterday should have been done long ago. A lot of lives would have been saved,” President Donald Trump said after the attack, adding that Soleimani had been plotting attacks against Americans, although the U.S. hasn’t yet provided evidence for this assertion. “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.”
Last week, the U.S. sent more than 650 paratroopers to the region, and recently announced it will be deploying an additional 3,500 or so standby troops to Kuwait.
On Friday, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a tweet that the U.S. attack was “extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation” and that “the US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.” Soleimani’s deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, has been appointed as his replacement.
“What would we do? Iran has to retaliate,” said Cristol.
The question now is what form that will take. In addition to conventional rocket attacks against Israel or U.S. interests in the region, Iran has the capability to engage in cyberwarfare against critical American infrastructure or corporations. And then there is Soleimani’s legacy: a network of well-supported, battle-tested militia groups in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere that may be directed to launch attacks on U.S. embassies, bases or other targets.
On Saturday in Baghdad, thousands of supporters poured into the streets in a funeral procession for Soleimani. “Death to America, death to Israel,” they chanted. “We will take our revenge!”
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