Qassem Soleimani was often described as a “shadowy” figure; an elusive commander who criss-crossed the Middle East in secret on his mission to sustain a regional military alliance loyal to Iran.
But in the days after he was killed by a US drone strike this month, his face was suddenly everywhere. Posters and billboards mourning his death appeared in Baghdad, Damascus, Sana’a and Beirut – places where Soleimani had spent years cultivating proxies and militias.
In the southern suburbs of Lebanon’s capital, known for its strong support of Hezbollah – one of Iran’s strongest allies – giant images of the Iranian general’s face now loom large.
Some two weeks after his death, anger over Soleimani’s killing is still palpable among Hezbollah supporters here. And despite Washington’s hope that the conflagration has been contained, many believe that it has only just begun.
“He was putting limits on American influence in the region and it was working for him,” says Umm Kassem Tarheene, who owns a mini-market in Dahiya, south Beirut. “That’s why they killed him.”
“Americans pretend to be peaceful and democratic, but they make wars and kill us like it is nothing. I think they treat animals better than us. It was for people like Soleimani to stand up against that,” she says.
The US, and much of the world, saw Soleimani as a terrorist and a war criminal – and with good reason. In Syria, he organised the deployment of thousands of Shia militiamen to bolster the forces of the president, Bashar al-Assad, and helped to orchestrate the devastating sieges that starved large populations of civilians into submission.
In Dahiya, however, he was seen as a protector.
“Soleimani defended the whole region, not just Iran, from extremism, as well as American and Israeli influence,” says Zeaiter, a van driver, referring to the general’s role in battling Isis in Syria.
“His assassination will just make us stronger mentally,” he adds.
As the head of Iran’s Quds Force, Soleimani was responsible for the Revolutionary Guard’s foreign operations. His primary mission was to build a “resistance axis” of Shia proxies that would project Iran’s regional might and act as a counter to US and Israeli power in the Middle East.
Hezbollah, often seen as one of the most successful of these projects, was founded by Revolutionary Guards in the early 1980s with the aim of expelling Israeli forces from Lebanon and establishing an Islamic republic. In the years since, Hezbollah has relied on Iran for support and weaponry, which it claims is necessary as a deterrent against Israeli aggression.
Over the years, Soleimani formed a particularly close relationship with the Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, and reportedly visited him in Beirut just days before he was killed.
In a rare interview in October last year, Soleimani reminisced about overseeing Hezbollah’s forces alongside Nasrallah during the 2006 war against Israel, and revealed that he had spent all 34 days of the fighting in Lebanon. Soleimani’s role in that conflict, during which much of Dahiya was flattened by Israeli airstrikes, was seen as crucial in holding off a more serious Israeli incursion.
After Soleimani’s killing, Nasrallah promised to avenge his death by forcing the US military to leave the region, and called on Iran’s allies to take action.
“When the coffins of American soldiers and officers begin to be transported to the United States, [Donald] Trump and his administration will realise that they have really lost the region and will lose the elections,” Nasrallah said, referring to the 2020 US presidential vote.
Iran’s own retaliation for Soleimani came just days after his death. A barrage of missiles was fired at two US bases in Iraq, although no one was killed.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said afterwards that the strikes “concluded” Tehran’s response, and that Iran was not seeking further “escalation or war”. But Iran’s proxies and allies, including Hezbollah, may yet seek their revenge.
In Dahiya, the group’s supporters expect more to come.
“Iran’s strike was just the start,” says Zeaiter, the van driver. “The only way Iran’s strike would be the end of the tension was if it caused the American forces to get out of Iraq, because this is what Soleimani wanted.”
In his speech two days after Soleimani’s death, Nasrallah said attacks on US military forces in the region would force them to withdraw “humiliated, defeated and in terror ... as they left in the past”.
Hezbollah was responsible for a suicide bombing that destroyed a US marine headquarters in Beirut in October 1983, killing 241 servicemen, and a suicide bombing the same year the US embassy. US troops withdrew from Lebanon the following year.
A former Hezbollah fighter who declined to give his name says part of the reason for the group’s furious reaction is that Soleimani’s killing was as much an attack on Iran as it was on its proxy groups.
“I see the assassination of Soleimani as a strike in the core of what is known to be called the resistance axis,” the former fighter, who has since left the group, says.
“Among Hezbollah supporters he was marketed as an important Shia figure who was going to liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation.”
“He was responsible for all the military operations of the Iranian proxies in the Syrian war, and in Iraq. He also took military decisions in Yemen and he had a range of influence on Hezbollah,” he adds.
Soleimani’s importance to Iran’s regional alliance was no doubt a key reason for his killing. The Trump administration has taken a significantly more aggressive stance towards Hezbollah, imposing heavy sanctions on the group which has squeezed its sources of funding.
Taken together with the killing of Hezbollah’s patron, the Trump administration’s approach has created something of a siege mentality among the group’s supporters, and its leadership.
“I don’t like war and I don’t want it to happen,” says Umm Kassem Tarheene, “but if someone attacks you and tries to do harm to your country, you have to punch them out.”