Professor recalls "nightmare" corruption in Iraq

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

The Iraqi government, according to the report, was "not capable of even rudimentary enforcement of anticorruption laws." It outlined corruption in the ministries of health ("Corruption is actually affecting its ability to deliver services"), trade (where 8 of 196 corruption complaints had made it to the courts), and on and on. Many ministries, the report said, were "so controlled by criminal gangs and militias" that corruption investigators could not do their job without a "tactical force" to protect them.

"Of course I had heard about the corruption," Mehdi says in his office at St. Cloud State, surrounded by stacks of books on globalization and complex organizations (one of his specialties as a sociologist). "But really, I had no idea."

Early on, as the person in charge of Iraq's private sector (where just one of his contracts was worth $18 billion), a stranger walked into Mehdi's office and asked him to sign off on a project. "He offered me 4 percent as a bribe!" Mehdi says. "I looked at him and I said no." His suitor took offense: "But doctor," he said, "I want to take care of you!"

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

Later, Mehdi was looking into constructing an airport in the Shiite holy city of Najaf—a potential gold mine for the city's failing economy, with pilgrims from Iran, Pakistan, and beyond flocking to the city's revered Imam Ali Mosque year-round. Mehdi, who grew up in nearby Nasiriyah, began a systematic study of potential international contractors and found four he liked. Then he talked to a politician of influence in Najaf. The man proposed a contractor that had promised him a kickback. Mehdi had already rejected the contractor and refused to reconsider. The project died.

This is not the post-Saddam Iraq Mehdi had imagined. He was working himself sick and getting nowhere. Almost daily he would get calls from family and friends outside the Green Zone. Everybody needed something—a job, a raise, a passport. "At the end of each day I would have this long list of things to do—and they had nothing to do with my job!"

He started to see physical decay in the people he worked with who, like him, were logging impossible hours and doing an impossible job. In one of their weekly meetings, Maliki commented to Mehdi: "Your face...it was different when you came here."

Then Mehdi's mother died. He had returned to Iraq hoping above all to see her again after decades of exile. Instead, he was stuck behind the blast walls. It was too dangerous for him to travel south to see her. He spoke to her as he had since the '70s—by phone. He couldn't get to her funeral. Talking about it now in his office, he falls silent and leans back in his chair toward a picture window framing a view of the frozen Mississippi River.

"Abbas changed a bit over there," says Bodvarsson, who talked with Mehdi by phone every week while he was in Iraq. "He had aspirations to go over and lead an effort to fix his country. But after spending some time there, I think he sees this is way beyond what any one person or team of people can do.

Steve Philion, another colleague at St. Cloud State, says Mehdi seems "physically and spiritually tired" since his return. Lavenda puts it differently. "He's haunted."

Mehdi hides none of this any more than he hides his frustration at the endless stateside wrangling over Iraq—it sends him into full tilt. "There is no time for this," he says. "There are immediate needs. People need water and electricity." He is nearly breathless now: "When there is no medicine and you don't feel safe in the streets and you don't have a job and your kid is not in school and when people are dying—time is too short!"

He obsesses over what can be done. He imagines a government of technocrats—people in positions of power not because of their religious or political affiliations, but because of their skills—people like him.

But he is stuck with an unrepentant American policy that he says "was flawed from day one" and an Iraqi government that, at his most charitable, he calls "uncreative." During his brief stint in Iraq—with his action plans and his PowerPoint presentations and his reputation for staying clean—he won the affections of Green Zone players both Iraqi and American. Maliki initially rejected Mehdi's resignation, and the U.S. Embassy begged him to stay. "We need more people like you, not less," Mehdi says one official told him. (The Iraqi government is notoriously secretive, and the U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone said it was unable to find someone to comment on Mehdi by press time.)

Even as he struggles to adjust to university life, Mehdi is wondering whether he should find a way to get back to Iraq. He's up most nights alone in his Minnetonka home consumed with the question. He receives a steady flow of emails asking when he will return.

On the computer screen in his office, he's reading in Arabic about an important meeting on international aid and investment for Iraq. "I should be there," he says, pointing to the screen.

There is a pause and then, quietly, he finishes: "But I am here."

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