Professor recalls "nightmare" corruption in Iraq

St. Cloud State teacher Abbas Mehdi saw realities of the occupation as a member of Iraq's government

In Baghdad, four square miles called the "Green Zone" have been carved out and fortified with a winding concrete blast wall that protects the politicians, diplomats, contractors, and journalists inside. For just over a year, 57-year-old Abbas Mehdi, an Iraq native and a professor of sociology at St. Cloud State University, lived inside those walls, where he worked for the Iraqi government, first as a consultant for the reconstruction effort and eventually as a cabinet member, all while paying a mortgage on a modest one-story home in suburban Minnetonka.

Mehdi's Baghdad home-hotel was the 18-story Al-Rashid, notorious in the days of Saddam Hussein as the meticulously bugged house of hospitality for visiting dignitaries. During the first Gulf War in 1991, CNN covered the action from a balcony of the Rashid. After the war, a tile mosaic was installed just inside the glass doors at the entrance—a portrait of George Bush Sr., with an exaggerated scowl and the words "BUSH IS CRIMINAL" as a sort of caption. Hotel workers buffed it daily, but now it's gone.

From his three-room suite, Mehdi would watch mortar fire land on streets and structures of his peculiar neighborhood. There was often no electricity or water at the hotel. A shower was a creative endeavor, and more than once, anticipating an important meeting, Mehdi had to ask hotel staff to fetch water in buckets and trudge the three flights to his room. Outside his door there were always security guards—South African contractors making $15,000 a month. They had enough ammunition at any given time to fight a 45-minute battle to protect him. After that, he would be on his own. "We became very close," Mehdi says of his guards, with a laugh and then a sigh.

Abbas Mehdi in Baghdad's Green Zone with his South African security guards
courtesy of Abbas Mehdi
Abbas Mehdi in Baghdad's Green Zone with his South African security guards

Mehdi lasted six months in a cabinet-level position that had him overseeing Iraq's private sector. He resigned in November, overwhelmed by the long hours, endemic corruption, and a government in complete disarray.

Two months later, in room 209 of St. Cloud State University's Stewart Hall, eight sociology students wait for Mehdi. Outside the classroom door there are no South African sentries, just a bulletin-board collage of magazine cutouts assembled by anthropology students, and a flyer posted by a band in need of a bass player.

When Mehdi marches into the room, his students hardly notice. They stay slumped in their chairs and stare at their hands. He hasn't been back in the classroom long—just two weeks—and with his suit, fiery eyes, bolt-straight posture, and quick step, he seems ready for something much more than what comes next. "Raise your hands if you read the assigned chapter," he says in a soft but commanding voice. One hand goes all the way up and one gets only halfway there. "I read some of it," a student mumbles from the back of the room.

St. Cloud State anthropology professor Robert Lavenda has seen Mehdi's re-entry up close. "When you've been involved in matters of international import," he says, "it's not easy to come back to a quiet university setting."

A professor of economics at the university and longtime friend of Mehdi's, Orn Bodvarsson, says that Mehdi "is still very preoccupied with what's going on over there."

Mehdi fled Iraq in the '70s just as Saddam Hussein was consolidating his power through assassinations and cynical political maneuvers. Mehdi was an early and vocal critic of the dictator—there was no future in Iraq for a man like that. He left Iraq with little more than a degree in economics. He went to England for a master's in management and became a vocal opponent of Hussein's regime. Hussein's spies were all over England at the time, and in the early '80s Mehdi was on the run again, this time to Ohio, where he earned a Ph.D. in sociology. He's been teaching at St. Cloud State since 1988.

Back in Iraq nearly 30 years after he fled, Mehdi had no designs on a cabinet position. He was there with U.S. funding to advise the Iraqi government on rebuilding after decades of dictatorship and war.

When Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki invited Mehdi to join his cabinet, the two had never actually met. But they had known of each other for years, and both had been targeted by Saddam Hussein for their decades-long roles in the fractured Iraqi opposition movement. Maliki worked from Syria as part of a deeply religious political party. Mehdi has always had a decidedly secular vision for a free Iraq; he worked with the opposition from England, then Ohio, then Minnesota, and eventually founded the Union of Independent Iraqis, an opposition party with the goal of a democratic Iraq.

Though he had opposed the U.S. invasion and heard plenty about the dysfunction of the Iraqi government, he took the job. "You can sit in your chair at home and complain about the way things are," Mehdi says, "or you can see what you can do to help from the inside."

Mehdi found himself in the inner circle of the prime minister just as a leaked secret report on corruption in the Maliki government, prepared by the U.S. Embassy, started making international headlines.

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