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Iraq: Open for Business

WASHINGTON — A milestone in the war in Iraq passed this week largely unnoticed here in a capital consumed more recently by Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, not to mention the economy or health care.

Hundreds of Iraqi officials — said to be the largest delegation from Iraq ever to visit the United States — gathered in a hotel near Capitol Hill on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss neither security nor American troop levels. Rather they came to promote something that was once, and might still be, more of a hope than a reality: investment.

“Why invest in Iraq?” Sami al-Araji, the head of Iraq’s national investment commission, asked the gathering on Tuesday in a crowded conference room at the Hyatt Regency. “There has never been a better time to invest in Iraq. Iraq has emerged from the conflicts of the past with tremendous potential for investment from local, regional and global companies.”

The war in Iraq has gone through many phases since it began more than six and a half years ago — invasion, occupation, insurgency, sectarian war, the “surge” and sovereignty. Now, with American troops retreating to major bases on their way out of the country all together, Iraq’s leaders hope to persuade a wary world a new phase has begun.

“Iraq,” is, as one brochure declared, “Open for Business.” Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki came, underscoring the government’s commitment to the notion, or promotion. So did the ministers of oil, trade, finance and agriculture, and governors of the country’s provinces, all of whom promoted investment opportunities. Anbar, once the heart of the Sunni insurgency? “Hidden opportunities.”

“Business and investors can work freely in any province they want,” Mr. Maliki said in an assertion, the veracity of which turns on one’s definition of the word “freely.” “There are no hot zones in Iraq.”

One expects Mr. Maliki to make the pitch for his country, which remains a violent place by any definition. What was really striking at the conference was the extent to which economic boosterism has now become the primary mission of the country that led the invasion in 2003.

President Obama’s national security adviser, James L. Jones, addressed the conference, as did Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who practically threatened investors not to tarry.

“In the words of an Arab proverb, ‘Dawn does not come twice to awaken a man — or a woman,’” she said. “The world is watching for every opportunity to invest in Iraq, and companies that wait too long may discover they are too late.”

Investment is beginning in Iraq, now that the worst of the bloodshed appears to have ended, but it’s hardly a flood yet.

Few in the conference — even Mr. Araji, when confronted by one angry investor — were sanguine about the investment climate, especially off the public stage, where the schmoozing was taking place, or “matchmaking,” as the conference agenda put it.

Security is not the only obstacle to turning Iraq into a free-market society in the heart of the Middle East. Bureaucracy, corruption, ossified state industries and central planning, distrust of foreigners and a lack of basic legal foundations — all have come into sharper focus now that the violence has subsided.

“We’re a million miles behind,” said Mahdi Sajjad, the president of Gulfsands Petroleum, who has been trying, unsuccessfully, to win a contract to capture natural gas now simply burned off at oil fields in Iraq.

And yet that is what gives Iraq great potential, according to Faisal al-Qaragholi, a businessman from Baghdad. “Iraq will be a gold mine for 50 years,” he said, rattling off the country’s vast need for housing, hotels, hospitals, roads, shopping centers and so on.

All it takes, he added, are investors willing to take a risk. “They have to have courage.”

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