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Who was Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general killed in a U.S. strike?

Who was Qassem Soleimani?

President Trump's decision to order the assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani was a gamble that CBS News national security correspondent David Martin says marks the beginning of a dangerous new era in U.S.-Iran relations.

Retired U.S. General David Petraeus, who commanded American forces during the war in Iraq, once called Soleimani "our most significant and evil adversary in the greater Middle East." While few in the U.S. would dispute that Soleimani was a die-hard enemy of America, his unilateral killing on Iraqi soil has drawn a vow of revenge from Iran, and condemnation and a warning of a much wider war from Iraq.

What follows is a look at how he became such an important figure.

While Soleimani was seen as a terrorist in the U.S., he was a towering and deeply respected figure in Iran. He was one of the key architects of the Iranian regime's efforts to reshape the country's influence in the region. In addition to directly commanding Iran's most elite military unit, the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, he was in charge of virtually all foreign military — and perhaps more importantly, quasi-military — operations conducted by the regime.

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As Martin notes, Soleimani had the firm backing of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his Quds Force, a U.S. designated terrorist organization, directly armed and trained Iraq's powerful Shiite militias and other proxy groups in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Yemen.

Those militias, which vowed revenge on Friday in response to Soleimani's assassination, were responsible for killing hundreds of U.S. troops during the American war in Iraq. But as CBS News correspondent Holly Williams reports, in more recent years he and his Shiite forces were ironically on the same side as the U.S.; fighting against the Sunni Muslim extremists of ISIS.

Williams says even many of Soleimani's enemies admitted he was a military genius. He spear-headed Iran's involvement in the Syrian civil war, helping to shore up the Syrian regime's grip on power.

For Iranians, whose icons since the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s have been stern-faced clergy, Soleimani widely represented a figure of national resilience in the face of four decades of U.S. pressure.

He survived the horror of Iran's long war in the 1980s with Iraq to take control of the Quds Force, but he was relatively unknown in Iran until the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. His popularity and mystique grew after American officials called for his killing. 

AP Explains Iran Revolutionary Guard
Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani, center, attends a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran, Iran, Sept. 18, 2016. AP/Handout

A decade and a half later, Soleimani had become Iran's most recognizable battlefield commander, ignoring calls to enter politics but becoming as powerful, if not more, than its civilian leadership.

Soleimani's luck ran out after being rumored dead several times in his life. Those incidents included a 2006 airplane crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of Assad. More recently, rumors circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria's Aleppo.

Soleimani's rise

Born March 11, 1957, Soleimani was said in his homeland to have grown up near the mountainous and the historic Iranian town of Rabor, famous for its forests, its apricot, walnut and peach harvests and its brave soldiers. The U.S. State Department has said he was born in the Iranian religious capital of Qom.

Little is known about his childhood, though Iranian accounts suggest Soleimani's 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, Soleimani began working in construction, later as an employee of the Kerman Water Organization. Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution swept the shah from power and Soleimani joined the Revolutionary Guard in its wake. He deployed to Iran's northwest with forces that put down Kurdish unrest following the revolution.

IRAN-US-ISRAEL-PALESTINIAN-CONFLICT-JERUSALEM
Iranian protesters hold a portrait of the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, during a demonstration in the capital Tehran, December 11, 2017, to denounce President Trump's declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty

Soon after, Iraq invaded Iran and began the two countries long, bloody eight-year war. The fighting killed more than 1 million people and saw Iran send waves of lightly armed troops into minefields and the fire of Iraqi forces, including teenage soldiers. Solemani's unit and others came under attack by Iraqi chemical weapons as well.

Amid the carnage, Soleimani became known for his opposition to "meaningless deaths" on the battlefield, while still weeping at times with fervor when exhorting his men into combat, embracing each individually.

After the Iraq-Iran war, Soleimani largely disappeared from public view for several years, something analysts attribute to his wartime disagreements with Hashemi Rafsanjani, who would serve as Iran's president from 1989 to 1997. But after Rafsanjani, Soleimani became head of the Quds Force. He also grew so close to Khamenei that the Supreme Leader officiated the wedding of the general's daughter.

A powerful U.S. enemy

As chief of the Quds — or Jerusalem — Force, Solemani oversaw the Guard's foreign operations and soon would come to the attention of Americans following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

In secret U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, U.S. officials openly discussed Iraqi efforts to reach out to Soleimani to stop rocket attacks on the highly secured Green Zone in Baghdad in 2009. Another cable in 2007 outlines then-Iraqi President Jalal Talabani offering a U.S. official a message from Soleimani acknowledging having "hundreds" of agents in the country while pledging, "I swear on the grave of (the late Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini I haven't authorized a bullet against the U.S."

U.S. officials at the time dismissed Soleimani's claim as they saw Iran as both an arsonist and a fireman in Iraq, controlling some Shiite militias while simultaneously stirring dissent and launching attacks. U.S. forces 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 — improvised explosive device — a dreaded acronym among soldiers.

In a 2010 speech, Gen. Petraeus recounted a message from Soleimani he said explained the scope of Iranian's powers.

"He said, 'Gen. Petreaus, you should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan,'" Petraeus said.

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The U.S. and the United Nations put Soleimani on sanctions lists in 2007, though his travels continued. In 2011, U.S. 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 ISIS.

Iran, a major backer of Assad, sent Soleimani into Syria several times to lead attacks against ISIS and others opposing Assad's rule. While a U.S.-led coalition focused on airstrikes, several ground victories for Iraqi forces came with photographs emerging of 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.

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