- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

BAGHDAD — For some Iraqis, the business of tomorrow’s election is business.

All Abu Haydar al Mayahi wants to talk about is business — not politics or religion, even at Friday prayers at Baratha mosque, a hotbed of Shi’ite electoral activity.

“What we need is a chamber of commerce where we can meet on a weekly basis, decide on our issues and give our recommendations to the government,” said Mr. Mayahi, an importer of perfumes and clothing.

And he’s got some specific ideas to improve Iraq’s business climate.

“First, we reduce taxes. Second, we should make sure only high-quality merchandise enters the country, not poor-quality merchandise,” he said.

Most who watch the Iraq tale unfold from a distance pity the Iraqis who must decide between spending their day waiting in gas or kerosene lines, while dodging car bombs and gunfire.

Security remains the number one issue in the minds of Iraq’s voters. But some Iraqis also see the election as a way to make their country more Muslim, or more secular, more Shi’ite or more Kurdish.

Business leaders as well as many ordinary Iraqis have another vision. They want a richer Iraq.

Despite their troubles, Iraqis in general are better off since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and with that taste of upward mobility, some hope the elections will improve their financial lives.

“They want more investment and want more work opportunities for them to make more money,” said Hathem Mukhlis, head of the Iraqi National Movement, one of the 111 parties running for office. “There is no foreign investment that came to Iraq. Whatever came had to leave in a hurry because of threats and all the attacks.”

Certainly Iraqis have more money to spend since the American invasion. Incomes of public employees have multiplied five-fold. About 52 percent of Baghdad families have at least one car, almost double the prewar rate, according to the Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies, a Baghdad research firm.

Three quarters of Iraqis own satellite dishes and about 60 percent in some cities have cell phones, both illegal under the previous regime.

Iraqi politicians have bandied about proposals to bring more Iraqis into the circle of wealth. Ahmad Barrak, a member of the Iraqi Society Movement running for office, has pitched a plan to privatize the state-owned oil company and give half the shares to Iraqi families.

“Our challenge is to convince Iraqis that they’re going to be rich,” he said during an upscale soiree for his party at Baghdad University. “This will give all Iraqis shares in the country. We can convince Iraqis that they’re a part of this country.”

His running mate, Hamid al-Kifaey, has a proposal to transform Iraq’s ration card system — under which each Iraqi family gets a share of food staples each month — into a real welfare system.

“Just feeding people is not a good idea,” he said. “It’s important for any modern state to have a social security system. This is at the top of our agenda.”

But Iraq’s deteriorating security has slowed the country’s economic potential.

“Even six months ago stores were open until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m.,” said business consultant Abdul Muhsin Shanshal. “Now they close at 5 p.m.”

Dr. Mukhlis, a dentist who lived for decades in the New York City area, says a lot of his rich Iraqi friends are getting out of the country because of security worries.

On the bright side, Iraq has some of the most liberal investment laws in the region. The U.S.-led occupation force made laws that kept taxes low and allowed foreigners to buy up companies here. Some hope elections will make those changes permanent.

“I think the next government in Iraq will represent all the communities,” said Hiwa Abdul Qader, who runs an engineering firm in the northern city of Kirkuk. “And I think the Iraqis prefer liberal or free economy in Iraq rather than a state-controlled economy.”

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