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Clinton urges U.S. companies to invest in Iraq

By Jamie Crawford, CNN National Security Producer
  • "Expanding economic opportunity" as essential as democracy, she says
  • Federal agencies join forces to support U.S. companies in Iraq
  • IMF says Iraq's growth will outpace China in two years, Clinton says

Washington (CNN) -- Iraq is open for business, and American companies should make an effort to invest there, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday.

"President Obama and I and our government believe strongly that expanding economic opportunity is as essential as building democratic institutions," Clinton said while surrounded by executives from companies as far-ranging as Occidental Petroleum, JP Morgan Chase, General Electric, Microsoft and Lockheed Martin, in a round-table discussion aimed at getting companies focused on commercial opportunities in Iraq despite its current "tough environment."

The meeting comes as the United States transitions from a military-led to a civilian-led partnership with the Iraqi government by the end of the year. The State Department is leading an inter-agency effort to support American companies in their efforts to secure commercial opportunities in Iraq.

With one of the largest customer bases in the Arab world, along with one of the best-educated work forces in the region, Clinton said, Iraq poses significant opportunities for American companies. The International Monetary Fund has projected for Iraq to grow faster than China over the next two years, she said.

The United States, through its embassy and consulates throughout the country, stands ready to assist American companies "to help create the conditions for investment and growth that will be broadly spread and create a ladder of economic opportunity for those willing to work hard," Clinton said. "Iraqis are looking to rebuild every sector of their economy, not only their oil sector but agribusiness, transportation, housing, banking and many others."

With additional help from the Departments of Treasury, Energy and Agriculture, among others, the United States will actively support efforts of American businesses to set up operations to compete with Turkish, Chinese, French, Jordanian and Iranian companies already seeking business opportunities in Iraq.

James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, is also working to establish an American Chamber of Commerce in Iraq to serve as an advocate for American businesses.

Despite the opportunity Iraq offers, Clinton said, she would "not sugarcoat" the difficulties posed by the current working environment in Iraq. "There are still significant security challenges, bottlenecks in infrastructure, unclear regulations and, unfortunately, corruption. But as our Iraqi colleagues will tell you, they are working hard to make it easier to do business in Iraq for Iraqis and foreign investors alike."

Clinton said the United States would also make it a priority to support the integration of women into the Iraqi work force.

"I know that a lot of the best students in Iraqi universities happen to be women, and I hope that Iraq takes full advantage of half the population, ready to work, ready to roll up their sleeves to assist in the transformation of their country," she said.

Thirty companies were represented at the event in the Benjamin Franklin room at the State Department. The Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaidaie, attended as well.