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Iraqi prime minister woos US businesses

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Photo by ReutersBy John Terrett

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with US business leaders on Tuesday, the second day of his visit to Washington DC.

He told them that instead of military generals leading the way in Baghdad's future, it would be business owners and captains of industry like them.

Maliki wants US companies to set up shop in Iraq.

I went along to hear him speak at the US Chamber of Commerce headquarters just steps from the White House. (That's a measure of how important business and commerce is in the US that the first building you come to when crossing Lafayette Park after leaving the White House is the Chamber's HQ.)

His message, just weeks before most US troops pick-up and go home, was clear, "our door is open, please come!"  He said: "Iraq represents a great investment environment, a nascent one and very promising!"  

The big US corporations like  Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Boeing and Pepsi (firms that sometimes seem to be extensions of the State Department) are already doing business in Iraq but fewer smaller scale ones.

Nonetheless, the US is facing stiff competition for Iraqi contracts from Italian, Chinese and even French companies with long traditions of trading in the region - despite its problems - like security, corruption, and questions about Iraq's political direction under Maliki.

Around 30 Iraqi companies turned up to hear their prime minister speak all well aware of the problems facing their country - but still optimistic.

Abdullah al-Jiburi, of the Jiburi Group, told me: "When there is a real start and a serious start and everything covered by law ... those things will be evaporated in the future."

Mr al-Jiburi is employing Newport Global, a Rhode Island based company, to oversee the construction of a sports village near Iraq's southern city of Basra, which is scheduled to open in June of 2012.

Rounsevelle Schaum is the boss and he equates today's Iraq to California in 1849 during the Gold rush!

"Iraq's oil reserves are approx those of Saudi Arabia so its going to be a great capital growth and expansion opportunity for those who are there."

Critics argue all the optimism will come to nothing if Prime Minister Maliki turns his back on western values and teams up with Iran ... stifling investments from western nations.

Tom Nides, the deputy US secretary of state (number two to Hillary Clinton), was at the event too. He said: "We're very confident that under Prime Minister Maliki the country he's set up is friendly to US companies and we're very confident Iraq has a bright future that's why were going to have a very robust diplomatic presence there."

The new era in Iraq is set to begin at the end of the year.


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