Iraq makes pitch to US investors

WASHINGTON: Backed by the Obama administration, Iraqi leaders made a pitch Tuesday for US investment as their economy struggles to rise from the ruins of war and the Baghdad government touts reforms.

President Barack Obama hailed the importance of a visit by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is accompanied by executives from 200 businesses and officials overseeing some 750 projects in all economic sectors.

"It represents a transition in our bilateral relationship so that we are moving now to issues beyond security and we are beginning to talk about economy, trade, commerce," Obama said.

The two-day business and investment conference that began at a Washington hotel on Tuesday is "going to be very well attended," the president said.

"We've seen over the last several months progress being made on providing clarification about investment laws inside of Iraq. There are obviously enormous opportunities for our countries to do business together," Obama said.

Maliki said he had discussed with Obama a new US-Iraqi era.

"Our relations today have moved along and not only confined to the security cooperation, but today have moved to the economic development and to providing prosperity for the Iraqi people," the prime minister said.

The business conference and the broader issue of economic and political development falls under the Strategic Framework Agreement concluded with the United States in the last year, he recalled.

He stressed the importance that elections scheduled for next year be held on time, as well as efforts to reintegrate Iraq within the international community. "We are trying to rebuild all our sectors of agriculture, oil sectors, tourism and so forth," Maliki said.

"We want to give the US companies an opportunity to be present in investing in Iraq, and all this cooperation on the basis of the strategic framework agreement," he added.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the business forum: "The world is watching for every opportunity to invest in Iraq, and companies that wait too long may come too late." Organized by Washington, the conference will facilitate contacts between US and Iraqi companies, businessmen and regional leaders from around Iraq.

While Iraq's National Investment Commission chief Sami al-Araji has conceded he does not expect deals to be inked at the conference, some 750 projects will be presented to potential investors, and presentations will be made, encouraging investment in Iraq.

The conference is to be attended by more than 200 companies, Araji told reporters earlier this month, and while the focus will be on basic infrastructure, investment in industries such as housing and construction, agriculture, health and transport will also be targeted.

More than six years after a US-led coalition invaded the country and eventually ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq's economy remains in shambles -- government revenues are almost entirely dependent on oil, and infrastructure remains dated and, in many cases, decrepit.

Finance Minister Baqer Jabr Solagh estimated in November that Iraq needed 400 billion dollars to rebuild the country, a figure the government is unlikely to be able to afford.

The cabinet last week approved a 67-billion-dollar annual budget, the vast majority of which is earmarked for government salaries, in 2010, leaving little left over for other projects.

Security has improved in Baghdad and throughout Iraq -- the death toll from violence in September was the lowest in five months, and less than half of the level a year ago.

However, violence is still high by international standards and recent major attacks have served notice that insurgent groups remain capable.

Foreign investment was deterred in particular by the August 19 bombings at the foreign and finance ministries.

The twin truck bombings killed around 100 people and left several hundred wounded, and made clear that key ministries could still come under further attack.