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.

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!"

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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