As Iraq war ends, why isn't the US in on more business deals?

Countries that opposed the American intervention now top the list of those probing economic opportunities in post-Hussein Iraq.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Workers build construction frameworks for gas pipes during a sandstorm in Al-Nassiriya gas field, 185 miles southeast of Baghdad, June 18.
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Whatever happened to the old truism about war – to the victor go the spoils?

In the case of Iraq, the United States is not reaping the benefits of its privileged position in the country after six years of war, Iraqi officials say – and they want that to change.

Iraq is signing billions of dollars in contracts with foreign firms to help rebuild the country, while private companies are forging partnerships with Iraqi businesses to provide the country with a lengthy backlog of needed goods.

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But Americans are largely absent from the bidding and the dealmaking, according to Iraqi officials.

"Despite an improvement in security and an increase in business visitors [to Iraq], American businessmen are lagging behind, and we don't like that," says Samir Shakir Sumaida'ie, Iraq's ambassador to Washington. "We hope that our American friends will be at the forefront."

In fact, Ambassador Sumaida'ie notes with a wry smile that some of the countries that most emphatically opposed an American intervention are now at the top of the list of countries probing the business opportunities in post-Saddam-Hussein Iraq.

"It's ironic that the very people who were against the US intervention in those early days are now the biggest presence," says Sumaida'ie, noting that Germany, France, China, and Japan are among the most active countries.

Submissions for government approval of projects nearing a total of $100 billion have blossomed over recent months as Iraq's security has improved and as the government has taken control of its own redevelopment.

Big-ticket projects range from rebuilding Baghdad's airport to building a new port for the southern city of Basra. At the same time, foreign companies are providing a widening array of consumer goods.

But whereas US firms got the bulk of billions of dollars in reconstruction projects administered by the US military, now countries that either had a tradition of working with Iraqis or that are accustomed to working in still-unstable environments are lining up to enter the Iraqi market, economists specializing in the region say.

To expose US businesses to opportunities in Iraq, the Iraqi government's foreign investment agency and the US Chamber of Commerce are preparing to hold a "business and investment summit" in Washington Oct. 20-21.

During a visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Washington last week, US Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said the chamber is "prepared to play a special role in forging closer commercial ties between the United States and Iraq."

But he added that to attract foreign investment, Iraq "must root out corruption, increase transparency, strengthen the rule of law and remove barriers to doing business."

Prime Minister Maliki said Iraq's increased security is already having an impact in the country's economy. The average worker's wages, he added, have jumped from $700 to $4,000 a year, creating a consumer market.

Part of the job of the Iraq-US Chamber conference will be to convince American companies that Iraq is stable and secure enough for foreign involvement in the country's reconstruction.

If Americans are lagging behind, "it's because of the perception of violence," Sumaida'ie says. "We want to transform the perception of Iraq from a trouble spot to an opportunity." The US government also has a role to play, he adds.

Sumaida'ie says that during Maliki's Washington visit, the prime minister informed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that some countries, including Germany and Japan, have recently lifted travel restrictions on their citizens visiting Iraq, while the US maintains a travel advisory.

"We noticed that Secretary Clinton took note of that," he says.

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