BAGHDAD American companies should invest in Iraq now to avoid losing out on opportunities to other international firms, a U.S. envoy leading a trade mission to the investment-starved country said on Wednesday.
Under Secretary of Commerce Francisco Sanchez, in Iraq with a trade mission of 14 U.S. companies, urged corporate leaders to hurry while acknowledging that security concerns remained high.
"The time is now. I think American businesses that want to take advantage of opportunities, if they wait a year, if they wait until everything is in a nice, neat order, then they're going to cede opportunities to businesses from other parts of the world," Sanchez told reporters in Baghdad.
"Opportunities to create partnerships and to engage is not a year and a half from now, or two years from now where perhaps you'll see a continued reduction in attacks or violence. If you want to really play a role here, you have to be here now."
Iraq needs investment in almost every sector as it seeks to rebuild itself after decades of war and sanctions. Regional partners Syria and Turkey have strong trade links with Iraq, while countries like China are eager to expand their footprint.
But many international firms remain wary of security in the country, where bombs and attacks are daily occurrences.
The lack of a government seven months after an inconclusive parliamentary election has also raised concerns insurgents would try to exploit the power vacuum.
Some of the 14 companies in the mission, the first to Iraq since the United States ended combat operations in August, said Iraq's regulatory environment and issues like corruption were big obstacles.
"It (corruption) is still a problem and that's why it's an issue that I've raised in every one of my meetings with government officials, that this is an issue that needs to be addressed, not just for the benefit of American businesses, but to really strengthen the Iraqi economy," said Sanchez.
"This is not purely an Iraqi problem ... One of the biggest barriers that we face around the world is corruption."
Sanchez said Iraq was a significant market in a broader U.S. plan to double its global exports over the next five years to boost commerce. He singled out sectors such as infrastructure, power generation, telecommunications and oil and gas.
The United States, which has spent some $700 billion on the Iraq war, is the country's third-largest trading partner after Syria and Turkey. Its leading exports include trucks, drilling and telecommunications equipment.
Companies on the mission included Boeing, Bell Helicopter Textron, ICON Global Architectural Engineering and Wamar International.
(Editing by Charles Dick)