Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the second most powerful in Tehran, was killed by an overnight drone strike early on Friday near the Baghdad airport in an attack authorised by United States President Donald Trump.
The strike also killed Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a close adviser to Soleimani.
The deputy commander of the Quds Force, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, is to replace Soleimani.
The killing of Soleimani marks the most significant escalation in tensions between the US and Iran since Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018.
Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, accused the US of “international terrorism”, adding that “the US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”
As the fear of war rises in the Middle East, Trump said in a tweet on Friday that the US killed Soleimani “to stop the war.”
“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” Trump told reporters at his Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida.
In the meantime, the Pentagon said it is deploying roughly 3,500 more troops from the Immediate Response Force (IRF) brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division to the Middle East.
“The brigade will deploy to Kuwait as an appropriate and precautionary action in response to increased threat levels against US personnel and facilities, and will assist in reconstituting the reserve,” the Pentagon said in a statement
On Friday, the White House said that the drone strike that killed Soleimani came at the direction of Trump.
“The US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organisation,” the White House stated.
Trump also tweeted that Soleimani “killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more but got caught.”
In the meantime, the Department of Defence said that “Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
“General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more. He had orchestrated 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.”
The Department of Defence added that “General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad that took place this week. This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.”
Who is Soleimani?
Soleimani is the second most powerful figure in Iran. He has been described as Iran’s spearhead in the Middle East as he was the mastermind of the Iran shadow wars and military and intelligence actions in the region. As much as he was hated abroad, he was beloved in Iran, viewed as a hero and a charismatic and brave commander.
He was born in the city of Qom in March 1957 to a farming family and grew up in the village of Rabour. At the age of 13, he left his home in search of work. Having only a high school education, he worked as a construction worker before getting involved with the military.
He joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in 1980 following the 1979 uprising where he had no real power in it.
In 1998, he commanded Iran’s Quds Force, an elite branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Quds Force is behind much of Iran’s overseas military and intelligence operations. It is classified as a terrorist group by the US and others.
Soleimani commanded over wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. According to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), “the Quds Force operations have sparked hundreds of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian and Iranian-backed-group sites in Syria. Iran has also maintained small ground forces in Syria, Yemen, and sometimes Iraq.”
In Yemen, Iran found a golden chance to “inflict damage on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for the first time since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and to extend Iran’s influence into the southern Red Sea. By 2019, Iran’s influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen expanded,” the IISS report said.
In Iraq, the Quds Force provided material and financial support to Shiite militias, which became the Popular Mobilisation Units.
The mission of the Quds Force is to help Islamic movements and expand the Islamic Revolution in such countries as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.
“The Quds Force adopted a structure to enable operations in Afghanistan, Africa, Asia, Central Asia, Iraq, Lebanon, Latin America, and the Arabian Peninsula,” the IISS said, adding that it established nearly 20 militant training camps in Iran, and 18 camps in Lebanon, with plans to construct camps in Sudan.
Meanwhile, the Quds Force provided “a safe haven, funds, terrorist training, weapons, and ideological nourishment to a broad group of international militants, including Afghan Hazaras, Balkan Muslims, Gulf militants, Palestinians, and even al-Qaeda,” the IISS noted.
In Syria, he is credited with helping President Bashar Al-Assad and orchestrating the offensive against his opposition.
He was accused of plotting to kill the ambassador of Saudi Arabia in Washington.
“Think of the role General Qassem Soleimani had in building militias and a loyalist base in Iraq besides other operatives of course. That’s the kind of role needed for Iran in Syria, but he’s gone. They won’t be able to find a similar calibre to replicate that. No chance,” Hassan Hassan, a Middle East analyst and author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror tweeted.
Hassan said that it’s bad timing for Iran to lose Soleimani. “If Iran has a few more years to replicate the Iraq scenario, he would have been central to this project. Assad still has key areas to recapture, Turkey increasingly assertive, and Russia wants to control Syria.”