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Qassem Soleimani: Who was he, and why does his death matter?

Posted at 10:41 AM, Jan 03, 2020

The United States sent shockwaves through the world on Friday when President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike near Baghdad's airport that killed one of Iran's top military leaders, Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Experts say the airstrike is one of the most significant geopolitical events to occur in the Middle East in years. Iran has already vowed "harsh retaliation for Soleimani."

Soleimani was born in Iran in 1957. He grew up in the midst of Iran's Islamic Revolution that saw religious leaders topple a monarchy in the country. Following the revolution, Soleimani joined the Revolutionary Guard — a branch of the Iranian military that protects religious political system in the country.

In the years after joining the Revolutionary Guard, Soleimani became known for his military prowess and leadership skills. He quickly rose through the ranks, and in 1998, took over one of the most powerful divisions of the Guard — the Quds Forces.

The Quds Forces carry out clandestine operations around the world in support of the Iranians' Shiite leaders. According to CNN, U.S. officials believe Soleimani's units provided Iraqi insurgents with specially-made bombs that could penetrate the body armor of American soldiers. CNN also says that Soleimani orchestrated an assassination attempt of Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States in Washington in 2011.

The Pentagon claims that Quds — at the direction of Soleimani — are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans. But the U.S.'s relationship with the Quds isn't always adversarial — the two fought together against ISIS in the past few years.

But Soleimani was more than just a military leader. He reportedly answered directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and was one of the most powerful political figures in the country. While many Iranians oppose the Shiite government in place, some experts claim many in the country remain highly skeptical of U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern affairs.

Iran and the United States have always had an adversarial relationship, but relations have eroded since Trump took office in 2017. In 2018, Trump removed the U.S. from an agreement that curbed Iran's nuclear weapons program and re-applied economic sanctions on Iran. Tensions boiled over late last month when a rocket barrage killed a U.S. military contractor working in Iran. The Pentagon blamed Iran for the attack and responded with targeted airstrikes that killed 25 people.

Following the U.S. airstrikes, pro-Iranian protesters occupied an area near U.S. embassy Iraq on Dec. 31. The protesters damaged part of the embassy, though no one was hurt or injured. Soleimani was said to be behind the organization of the protests.

It's unclear what will happen in the wake of Soleimani's death, though Iran has promised retaliation. Experts warn that continued escalation could draw the U.S. into an extended conflict.

Alex Hider is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @alexhider.