- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

BAGHDAD — To Sabah Taleb Mehdi, who suffered under Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a champion of democracy.

Mr. Mehdi is the owner of Arnold Classic, Baghdad’s only professional bodybuilding gym. Now that Iraqis are gearing up to hold their first real elections, the chubby, smiling ex-bodybuilding champ is hoping for a candidate just like “the Arnold man.”

“Inside Iraq, perhaps there’s a man just like the Arnold, who will try to lead our country in peace,” said Mr. Mehdi, 43, surrounded by the oiled and bulging Schwarzeneggers that prance across every wall of his gym’s tiny office.

Until he fell from grace and fled the country, Mr. Mehdi was the Ba’ath regime’s favored bodybuilding trainer. Despite his reversals, he remained faithful. Mr. Mehdi has admired Mr. Schwarzenegger since 1973.

That year, Mr. Schwarzenegger was an obscure Austrian bodybuilder, and Mr. Mehdi was a scrawny Baghdad teenager who kept scrapbooks of the Mr. Olympia champion and dreamed of being like him someday.

With Mr. Schwarzenegger as his inspiration, Mr. Mehdi started working out. If it weren’t for bodybuilding, and Mr. Schwarzenegger, Mr. Mehdi might not be here today: As a 20-year-old Shi’ite male, he was prime cannon fodder for the front in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Instead, he won a special gold medal that year as the youngest contestant in the Mr. Asia competition.

He won Iraq’s national bodybuilding championship every year from 1977 to 1990. He trained the Iraqi national bodybuilding team for the Olympics and other world championships. He wrote fan letters to Mr. Schwarzenegger in 1976 and 1977, and once received a reply from Mr. Schwarzenegger, addressed “To my only friend among the Arabs.”

Saddam’s two sons, Uday and Qusai, went to Mr. Mehdi to get rippling muscles. He won’t say if they used steroids — “that’s another story,” he said. But he allows that Uday, in particular, wanted to look good without much effort.

“They just wanted to build up their bodies fast. They didn’t want to work hard,” Mr. Mehdi said with scorn.

“They didn’t have a mind for bodybuilding, because the government didn’t see the future of Iraq.” After he dared to criticize some of the rulers’ relatives for their laziness, Mr. Mehdi fell out of favor.

Fearing for his life, he fled to Malaysia. He lived there for six years, without his wife and children, sneaking back every two years to visit them.

In 2000, he moved back to Baghdad, where the cult of Mr. Schwarzenegger is strong, and tried to rebuild his life. He bought a downtown gym just blocks from the giant statue of Saddam in Firdous Square.

But when he tried to name the gym for his beloved Mr. Schwarzenegger, Uday’s Olympic Committee vetoed the idea: No foreign names for Iraqi gyms. In April, when Saddam’s statue fell, Mr. Mehdi renamed his gym.

On Oct. 7, the night Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, was elected governor of California, Mr. Mehdi and his bodybuilding friends stayed up until 4 a.m. watching the election returns in the gym office. “When I found out he won,” said Mr. Mehdi, “I cried with joy.”

Little by little, he started putting up more posters of Mr. Schwarzenegger. Today, his gym is plastered with hundreds of images of the man nicknamed the Austrian Oak. Outside, a giant, 10-foot oil portrait of Mr. Schwarzenegger flexes over concrete barriers and armed guards.

These days, Mr. Mehdi once again is training the Iraqi national bodybuilding team for the Mr. Asia competition. He has resurrected his import-export business, and he has a new dream: that one day Mr. Schwarzenegger will visit his gym.

“It would be my dream if he comes here,” said Mr. Mehdi, who had hoped the famous bodybuilder would drop in during his visit in July to U.S. troops in Iraq. “I know he’s a famous man, and he’s not really free to visit people — I understand.”

In California’s gubernatorial election, Mr. Mehdi sees hope for Iraq.

“We have lost most of our lives to the hatred of the old regime, but hopefully things will be better soon,” he said. “The most important thing is that we got rid of the old oppressive regime.”

Can California shed any light on Iraq’s debate over whether to hold elections sooner rather than later? Can elections held in haste and anger, as some political scientists claim, divert democracy’s flow?

Mr. Mehdi smiles, as though the answer is obvious. “As long as there is democracy,” he said, shrugging, “there will be elections.”

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