Obama administration declares Iraq open for U.S. business

Jane Arraf, The Christian Science Monitor

BAGHDAD — The United States is hoping that a share of Iraqi reconstruction projects will help revive the U.S. economy and assist in reaching an ambitious goal of doubling American exports globally in the next five years.

First, however, American companies must overcome their reticence and realize that despite ongoing security problems, corruption and political paralysis, they can’t afford to wait to start doing business in Iraq, a senior U.S. official leading a trade delegation here said Wednesday.

“The opportunity to create partnerships and engage is not a year-and-a-half from now or two years from now, where perhaps you’ll see a continued reduction in attacks or violence. If you want to play a role here, you really have to be here now,” Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade Francisco Sanchez told reporters.

Sanchez said that Iraq could figure prominently in meeting his mandate of doubling American exports and creating new jobs.

“When I look at the infrastructure projects, the amount of money the Iraqi government is willing to invest — over $80 billion in the next several years — I see Iraq as a market where I can make a significant contribution for that in that goal,” Sanchez said.

Iraq’s biggest trading partners are neighboring Turkey and Iran, with the United States far behind. Under U.S.-led trade sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s, American companies were barred from doing business in Iraq, and along with other Western countries have had to try to acquire a foothold.

“The Chinese are here; European companies are here; the Turks are here; the French are very much here . … You need to come out,” said Sanchez, describing his message to American firms.

Iraq’s ongoing violence has posed significant obstacles to doing business, however. The lack of a new government more than seven months after Iraqis went to the polls has added another layer of uncertainty.

“I’m not trying to sugarcoat this,” Sanchez said, “but what I am trying to say is, the Iraqi government is sorting through some of these challenges as the physical security increasingly improves. You can’t wait for everything to be perfect.”

In a sign of its increased confidence in the ability to do business in Iraq, the official U.S. export credit agency, the Export-Import Bank, has begun backing short and medium-term loans for Iraqi imports of American products.

The U.S. has spent tens of billions of dollars on Iraq reconstruction, including billions that can’t be accounted for, according to U.S. auditors. The U.S. now, though, will be looking to Iraq as a trading partner rather than as an aid recipient.

The delegation Sanchez is leading includes 14 American firms, most of them in engineering, industrial equipment, and security. They met with Iraqi businesspeople in the heavily guarded Green Zone where the U.S. Embassy is based.

On Monday, Honeywell International announced that it’s expanding its business in Iraq and would open a Baghdad office to provide equipment to the oil and gas industry. Iraq last week announced that it had dramatically increased its estimate of its proven oil reserves, giving it the second-largest reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia.

Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani said surveys by international oil companies and the discovery of new fields have raised the country’s proven reserves by 25 percent, to 143.1 billion barrels.

While oil experts say Iraq’s reserves likely have been underestimated due to more than a decade-long halt in exploration, they cast doubt on the certainty of the government’s figures.

“Everyone agrees that Iraq’s declared reserves have been underestimated because the country was closed to international oil companies for a very long time and very little exploration was done,” says Ruba Hasari, an oil analyst and the founder of the Iraq Oil Forum website.

“But at the same time, it does not give the full picture — seismic surveys and more appraisal work is needed for a more accurate figure,” she said, calling the announcement “premature.”

Sanchez said the announcement of higher reserves was “worth looking at” but would need more study.