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Iraq's big board back in business

From CNN's Michael Holmes

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An Iraqi living in the United States is set for vacation in his homeland.

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- It's not Wall Street and the closing bell could be a closing boom, but it is a start.

Closed for 16 months because of the war and the chaos that followed, the Iraqi Stock Exchange is now back in business, for now, tucked in an anonymous hotel function room .

This is the fifth session of Iraq's big board after a U.S.-backed reorganization of the exchange, and all is well.

Last Sunday it was a little noisier.

"We were selling and buying and around us they were fighting and bombs and explosions and nobody cared, nobody gave it a second thought," said chairman of the Iraqi stock exchange, Talib al Tabatabaie.

When people say the words "Iraqi Stock Exchange" the next word on a lot of lips might well be "SELL!".

But before the bombs and the bullets, Iraq was, and still has the potential to become a very, very wealthy country.

"Iraq is not a newcomer to wealth, Iraq is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It used to be," said Talib.

The markets are open just twice a week -- on Wednesdays and Sundays -- for two hours, from 10 a.m. until midday.

Only 27 companies are trading so far, mostly banks, utilities and a chemical company, but 100 more are due to go public in the coming months.

By the end of the year Talib hopes to have nearly 200 companies listed, and be trading six days a week in brand new headquarters.

He says the exchange has to succeed for Iraq's sake.

"(It's) very important, essential, it is vital," says Talib.

Back in the 1990s when the exchange was first launched, there were ordinary investors, plenty of them.

But the big timers were members of Saddam's regime, many of them now either dead or in jail, and, Talib says, all of them have seen their shares confiscated.

Other ordinary investors will have their old shares recognized on the new boards.

In the old days, there were price controls, too, limiting fluctuations to five percent.

But no more, the second trading session saw the index rise 20 percent. At session five it's clearly a bull market in Baghdad.

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