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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's investment commission is pushing for foreign firms to be allowed to own land, a move seen as key to attracting the developers required to build houses and repair and expand the country's creaking infrastructure.
National Investment Commission Chairman Sami al-Araji told Reuters on Monday the proposal was one of several amendments to an investment law that was meant to herald a flood of foreign capital, but has been neutered by bureaucracy and red tape.
Violence in Iraq has fallen since last year, but that has yet to be accompanied by major investment. The cash-strapped and oil-reliant country is keen to stimulate its private sector after oil prices tumbled from last year's record highs.
"The investor has a right to own Iraqi land. The lands open to investment will be administered by the investment commission, without going through the ministries," Araji said, outlining two amendments to the law meant to strengthen its powers.
Araji hopes the amendments will be ratified by September.
Businessmen have long bemoaned the difficulty in securing land in Iraq. Some is protected by agricultural laws, and other laws only grant foreigners land ownership for a limited time, after which it and any buildings on it revert to the state.
Other proposed amendments include the exemption of foreign investors from having to bid for plots of land or stakes in public-private partnerships. Instead, the commission will be able to allocate land or stakes at its discretion if it feels the investment will benefit Iraq.
The commission aims to attract about $500 billion of foreign investment by 2015, including for the development of millions of new homes, and hotels to cater for millions of Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims who visit holy sites in Iraq each year.
Araji said there was great interest in investing in Iraq, which has the world's third largest proven oil reserves, but that plans had been hit by the global financial crisis.
"Before then we traveled, had discussions, then the crisis happened and the credit needed for investment ended."
There has also been a spike in violence lately, sowing doubt about the durability of recent security gains, but Araji said potential investors he had spoken to were unperturbed.
"We haven't had an investor come to us and say we cannot invest anywhere because of tensions. They know it's temporary."