- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Bush administration is promoting business opportunities in Iraq as fighting rages on, with a senior Commerce Department official leading a mission there this week.

Sectors that focus on rebuilding, such as telecommunications and construction, offer significant opportunities for foreign companies.

Commerce Undersecretary for International Trade Franklin L. Lavin, whose mission began Monday and ends today, met with the Iraqi trade, housing and construction minister and the industry and minerals minister.

Despite current unrest, it is not too early to look into business possibilities, Mr. Lavin said by phone yesterday from Irbil, the largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“Economic progress can be part of the solution, and we really owe it to ourselves not to wait until there’s an improvement in security,” he said.

“Part of what we are doing here, we think, fits in with the broader political goal of the United States of stabilizing the situation in Iraq,” he said.

During the visit, the two sides started the U.S.-Iraq Business Dialogue, a mechanism bringing Iraqi and U.S. businesses together to discuss nuts-and-bolts business issues such as registering businesses, labor law flexibility and tariff issues.

The trip also saw the start of an effort to encourage companies to look at the Kurdistan region as a platform for economic activity and gateway to the rest of Iraq.

Mr. Lavin said it makes sense for some types of companies to look at Iraq, citing a boom in such sectors as information technology, as well as substantial regional activity, including a $300 million airport and a $400 million power plant.

He put the amount of investment in the Kurdistan region since the 2004 fall of Saddam Hussein “in the billions.”

In addition, he said, “there’s a lot exporting going on,” noting that U.S. exports to Iraq reached $1.5 billion last year.

Exports for 2005 were about $1.4 billion, with more than half of that total coming from the cereals, electric machinery and nuclear reactors, boilers and machinery categories.

Simon Beard, head of business development for the Middle East at Nortel Networks, one of the companies on the trip, said he was upbeat about the possibilities in Iraq.

Nortel has been pursuing opportunities there and has closed contracts, including a $20 million deal to build an optical transmission network there.

“In the long term, we think this is a great market,” he said, adding that regardless of its political future, Iraq will have oil revenue. And its infrastructure must be built from scratch.

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