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Report from an Iraqi Minnesotan on the Iraqi election

I haven’t been too sure of what to make of the mixed-but-mostly-positive media reports out of last week’s Iraqi provincial elections, so I called Prof.

I haven’t been too sure of what to make of the mixed-but-mostly-positive media reports out of last week’s Iraqi provincial elections, so I called Prof. Abbas Mehdi because I know he always gets reports from his family and other contacts back in Iraq.

In brief, his report on the elections: mixed-but-mostly-positive. “Not perfect and still many problems,” “still a long way from a real democracy,” but ”much, much better than the elections in 2005.”

Mehdi believes the religious parties are losing strength and the more secular political parties are gaining (this could be wishful thinking – Abbas has been hoping for and predicting this development for several years).

He believes the election results will strengthen Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and increase the chance that he will remain in power after the next national elections. Because of the participation of Sunni voters this time around, he believes the Kurdish parties will also lose ground. (Mehdi, who is a Shiite, welcomes this development. He believes the Kurds have been overrepresented.)

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Who is Abbas Mehdi?

A native of Iraq, Mehdi lives in Minnetonka and teaches at St. Cloud State University. His expertise includes the sociology of complex organizations.

A member of a prominent Shiite family, he fled Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era and headed a small group of expatriates that sought to overthrow Saddam. Years ago, he was the first person to warn me that the Bush Administration’s favorite Iraqi, Ahmad Chalabi, was a dangerous fraud.

 I interviewed Mehdi many times about Iraqi issues in my Strib days. One interview, just after the 2003 U.S. invasion, sticks in my mind. Mehdi expressed a deep feeling of shame that Iraqis had not been able to overthrow Saddam on their own and had to have the U.S. do it for them. I was very touched by the interview. Mehdi subsequently became a critic of U.S. policy Iraq.

In 2006-07, Mehdi moved back to Iraq working with the U.S. Agency for International Development and then for the Iraqi government. When he returned in late 2007, he gave a very pessimistic appraisal of the situation in his homeland, of the violence, chaos and especially of the endemic corruption. He said Iraq had traded the “nightmare” of Saddam for a new “nightmare” under U.S.occupation.

So if Mehdi says things are really improving, I’m inclined to listen. The participation of the Sunni regions in the recent election is major breakthrough, he said, raising new hopes for reconciliation across ethnoreligious lines. Al-Maliki is moving in the right direction, calling for stronger national government and less tribalism.

But the elections had big flaws, Mehdi said. There is no legal structure for financing the political parties, so “nobody knows who’s paying for what and who’s paying for whom– the Iranians? the Saudis? Nobody knows.” His friends and relatives told him that people were handing out cash bribes in exchange for votes and voters were confused by the hundreds of names on the ballot.

But, compared with a year ago or several years, the security situation is “much improved, very good now.” U.S. troops are much less visible, and Iraqis are pleased that many of them will be leaving in the next year, although Mehdi said the U.S. will “never” remove its last troops or military bases from Iraq.