Updated: Jan 9, 2020
Historians may well trace the moment Qassem Soleimani signed his own death warrant to one day back in the summer of 2018.
Donald Trump had fired off a typically abrasive tweet 72 hours earlier, accusing his Iranian opposite number Hassan Rouhani of using 'demented words of violence and death'. The US President promised 'consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before'.
Soleimani, who was Iran's highest-ranking general and probably the most powerful military officer in the Middle East, responded in a speech at a military base in Hamdan, 200 miles southwest of the capital Tehran.
A man who wore his power so lightly and was so softly spoken that one American journalist described him as 'theatrically modest' dropped his usual reserve to lay into Mr Trump.
He said the President's 'idiotic comments' had been delivered 'in the style of a bartender or a casino manager', according to a translation provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute TV Monitor Project. He then raised his voice to a yell and, wagging his finger, declared: 'Mr Trump, the gambler! You are well aware of our power and capabilities in the region.
'Come, we are waiting for you. We are the real men on the scene, as far as you are concerned. You know that a war would mean the loss of all your capabilities. You may start the war, but we will be the ones to determine its end.'
Eighteen months later, the man who prayed for martyrdom as the fulfillment of his life as a fighter for the Islamic Revolution was granted his wish.Soleimani sent thousands to their deaths during a military career that started when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980.
He was then a foot-soldier in an army which – confronted by Saddam Hussein's sophisticated weaponry and poison gas – displayed fanatical courage. Soleimani was in the ranks from start to finish of that terrible war, defying death so often that he seemed to have more lives than a Persian cat.
As he rose through the ranks of Iran's special forces, reaching the very top by 1998, Soleimani was distinguished by his refusal to be a desk general. Even his worst enemies respected his courage in leading from the front. That gave him rare respect even among countrymen who had come to detest the Islamic Republic's repression and corruption.
Recently, after years operating in the shadows, Soleimani raised his media presence, which made some people think he was positioning himself for run to be president. He was certainly as much a shadow foreign minister as a general.
Soleimani became notorious as the patron of terrorist groups from Lebanon to Latin America and when he met Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in 2015 to plot a joint intervention in Syria it was clear he was a key player in world politics. It marked a high point in a giddy rise to the top for a man from very humble beginnings. Born in 1957 near the Afghan border, Soleimani's formative years were marked by poverty.
But the Islamic revolution brought him close to the future Ayatollah Khamenei, today's supreme leader, when both were part of the underground struggle against the Shah. Along with Khamenei, Soleimani become a comrade-in-arms of a future president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This made him a core member of Iran's ruling class.
As the commander of the Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force he was at the forefront of the battle against Israel. Quds is the Iranian name for Jerusalem. For Shiite fundamentalists like Soleimani, ultimate victory was defined as sweeping through Iraq to wipe Israel off the map.
His revolutionary guards were not just the protectors of Iran's ruling hardliners but the regime's key tool for promoting their brand of radical anti-Israeli Islam across the Middle East. Soleimani was responsible for extending Iran's arc of influence – its 'Axis of Resistance' — from the Gulf of Oman through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the shores of the Mediterranean.
Although he hated the United States, Soleimani was a cunning tactician. He recognized that from Afghanistan to Syria, Iran's Shiites shared a common enemy with the Americans in the Sunni fundamentalist terrorist groups, Al Qaeda and so-called Islamic State.
And he was willing to cooperate with Washington if it helped him achieve his goals.
Ironically, the same US air power which killed him had provided air support to his men among the ground forces fighting Islamic State in Iraq.
He may have been popular for fighting the hated IS, but Soleimani's wars abroad made many Iranians mutter that huge sums and blood had been spent propping up the regime's allies while life at home was getting harsher.
He was ruthless in suppressing dissent inside Iran by shooting protesters. And he had urged Shiite militias in Iraq to gun down demonstrators there too. Now the man who lived by the sword has died by it.