The death of Iran’s powerful military Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike early Friday in Baghdad has prompted mixed media coverage in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was killed along with several other Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leaders in a U.S. drone-launched missile that targeted his convoy in the Iraqi capital.
Mainstream news organizations in Iran shifted most of their focus to the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who vowed a crushing revenge for the death of Soleimani.
State-run TV channels decorated their screens with black-ribbon symbols while covering street marches of mourning people who called Soleimani a “martyr.”
Most Iranian news outlets also covered the visit of Khamenei to the family of Soleimani, while a few moderate outlets highlighted a message delivered by the Swiss Embassy, which represents the interests of the United States in Iran, to the Iranian Foreign Ministry. The content of the message was not revealed.
News outlets affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) profiled Soleimani’s successor, Ismail Qaani, stating that Soleimani’s path would continue and the system should survive after his “martyrdom.”
Regime vs. opposition
Syrian government-run news outlets described the death of Soleimani as “martyrdom” and solely reported statements made by pro-Iranian regional leaders regarding the U.S. attack. Since the eruption of Syria’s civil war, Iran has been a staunch supporter of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The official SANA news agency published two letters sent by Assad to Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani and Khamenei.
In both letters, Assad said, “This criminal act committed by the U.S. administration reaffirms its approach of supporting terrorism, destabilizing the region and spreading chaos and law of the jungle, in the service of Zionist projects and colonialism in the region and the world as a whole.”
In the meantime, several pro-opposition news outlets in Syria expressed content with the death of Soleimani. Syrian opposition groups have long accused Soleimani and the Quds Force of killing Syrian civilians during the civil war.
“Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Soleimani began traveling periodically to Damascus, and he was managing the battle himself, according to U.S. intelligence reports,” Syrian opposition news channel Orient News wrote Friday.
“According to U.S. officials, Soleimani was running the battle from Damascus to keep Assad in power. He was surrounded by multinational leaders who were running the war, including the leaders of the Assad militia, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, and representatives of the Shiite militias in Iraq, followed by thousands of Shiite fighters, who, together with Russian support, managed to control most Syrian cities and provinces that had been controlled by the opposition for years,” Orient News added.
Along sectarian lines
In Iraq, the coverage of the U.S. airstrike on Soleimani’s convoy was divided along sectarian lines.
Shortly after the U.S. strike early Friday, Iraqi state TV announced that Soleimani and Popular Mobilization Forces leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were “martyred” during an attack near Baghdad’s airport.
The confirmation was followed later in the day by strong condemnation statements from the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, which accused the U.S. of violating Iraq’s sovereignty. Both President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi praised Soleimani and al-Muhandis for their role in the Iraqi fight against the Islamic State. The two leaders urged restraint from all sides, warning that further escalation could drag Iraq deeper into the conflict between the U.S. and Iran.
While less formal media outlets close to Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces called for the Iraqi parliament and government to order the removal of U.S. forces in Iraq, pro-Sunni media aired footage of Iraqi civilians allegedly celebrating the death of Soleimani and al-Muhandis. The two Shiite leaders, the Sunni media claimed, were behind the deaths of hundreds of Iraqi protesters killed in recent violent demonstrations.
A more ambiguous tone came from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north, which has blamed Soleimani in the past for leading an effort to foil a Kurdish referendum on independence in September 2017. Officials at the KRG have yet to express their position.
Media outlets in Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival in the Middle East, dedicated most of their coverage to the regional implications of Soleimani’s death.
The pan-Arab Saudi news channel Al-Arabiya ran a feature story on Soleimani’s role in expanding Iran’s agenda in the Middle East, describing him as “a key driver behind Iran’s hard-power approach, consolidating Iran’s influence over its Shia associates in the region and creating vast proxy networks from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Yemen.”
The story added that “Soleimani’s support for Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas has become an enduring feature of Iran’s foreign policy, which has provided financial support and training to the groups.”
The Okaz newspaper in Riyadh, known for its anti-Iranian stances, editorialized its coverage of Soleimani’s death, calling it a “painful blow” to Iran’s expansionist ambitions in the region.
“The certain thing is that the killing of the general of blood and destruction Qassem Soleimani at the hands of the Americans in Iraq is a huge event in every sense of the word,” the Saudi newspaper said in its Friday editorial.
“The long arm of the [Iranian] mullahs’ terrorism is the architect of the expansion project in the region from Lebanon to Iraq, passing through Syria, and not ending in Yemen,” it added.
Media outlets affiliated with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah provided extensive coverage of Soleimani’s death, reflecting the Shiite group’s pro-Iranian position. Hezbollah has been a major nonstate ally of Iran in the latter’s quest for dominance in the Middle East.
While it has been reported that Naim Qassem, the deputy chief of Hezbollah, was among those killed in the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad, the media office of the Shiite group denied his death.
Hezbollah’s television channel al-Manar published statements by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and other senior officials, vowing to retaliate against the U.S.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported that Turkey’s foreign ministry had voiced concerns over “escalating tensions in the region between the U.S. and Iran” and advised Turkish citizens to refrain from traveling to Iraq unless it was necessary.
The Hurriyet newspaper published a story about Soleimani’s death on its website with the headline, “The world is waiting for the response with dismay. War bells are ringing.”
Kemal Can, a columnist for the online newspaper Gazete Duvar, connected the Baghdad attack to U.S. domestic politics.
Can argued, “The intertwining of domestic and international politics, as we have been experiencing in Turkey in recent years, is related to the spirit of our time spreading around the world.”
Kadri Gursel, a writer for the online newspaper Diken, referred to Soleimani as “the queen in Iranian geopolitical chess.” Gursel added that “Trump took out Iran’s queen.”
In Yemen, where Iran has been supporting Houthi rebels fighting government forces, pro-government media reacted to the news by posting several analysis and opinion pieces indicating that the situation would be more intense in the region.
Most of them concluded with two scenarios regarding Soleimani’s death and its consequences for the Yemeni conflict: Houthis might receive less support from Iran or they would start acting more aggressively in light of the new developments.
Pro-Houthi news outlets called Soleimani “the great Mujahid” and published statements by Houthi commanders expressing sympathy and vowing to revenge for his death.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
In Afghanistan, Iran’s neighbor to the east, the death of the Iranian general received much coverage, notably by independent media outlets. The coverage, however, has so far been conveying official statements from the Afghan government.
But Payam Aftab News, a seemingly pro-Iranian network, called Soleimani a “martyr” and “mujahid” in several stories.
In Pakistan, where the majority of media outlets are allegedly monitored by intelligence agencies, most coverage reflected the official position of the Pakistani government.
Instead of leaning toward Iran or the U.S., Pakistani media emphasized the need to maintain peace in the region.
VOA’s Mohammad Habibzada contributed to this story from Washington.