WASHINGTON -- Iraq is open for business.
That's the message the U.S. and Iraqi governments are jointly sending during a two-day conference in Washington this week whose goal is to match U.S. business people and investors with economic opportunities in Iraq.
With U.S. combat forces out of Iraq's cities and towns and on track to leave the country by next summer, Iraq is struggling with the next phase of post-war recovery: economic stabilization and growth.
But six years of fighting have drained its economy and left the country's aging infrastructure in ruins.
Finance Minister Baqer Jabr Solagh has estimated that Iraq needs $400 billion to rebuild the country -- a sum the government can't afford.
The standing-room only crowd that was inside the ballroom of Washington's Capital Hyatt on the first day of this conference, however, might be able to help.
'Ready and Eager'
Dr. Sami al-Araji, chairman of the Iraqi National Investment Commission, opened the conference with the advice to "get in on the ground floor" of what he called "one of the best investment opportunities in the whole world:" Iraq.
"There has never been a better time than now to invest in Iraq," al-Araji said. "Iraq has emerged from the conflicts of the past with enormous potential for investment from local, regional, and global companies. There is room for development in many areas of Iraq's economy and opportunities exist in all sectors, and all provinces."
He added, "Iraqis are ready and eager to engage in mutually beneficial trade and investment with the rest of the world."
And the U.S. government wants to help.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the stage to urge American businesses to take note of the progress that has been made in Iraq and to move quickly to take advantage of the massive need for development in nearly every sector of the economy.
"The security situation has improved. The conditions for investment are stronger. And in the words of an Arab proverb, 'Dawn does not come twice to awaken a man' -- or a woman. The world is watching for every opportunity to invest in Iraq, and companies that wait too long may discover they are too late," Clinton said.
Networking and Matchmaking
This conference was organized by the U.S. government, which hopes it will forge relationships between U.S. and Iraqi companies, and business and regional leaders from around Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki arrived with a Iraqi delegation of some 200 officials and business representatives who oversee hundreds of financial projects in Iraq, ranging from agriculture to manufacturing, construction to oil.
NIC chief al-Araji told reporters earlier this month that he doesn't expect the meeting to produce that many contracts, but rather that the information shared and contacts made will lead to business agreements in the not too distant future.
To that end, the conference agenda is packed with sessions with names like, "Matchmaking" and "Networking and Meetings with Ministries, Parliamentarians & Provinces."
But it also includes sessions on specific topics, like what kind of U.S. and Iraqi government help is available to businesses as far as "Logistics, Life Support, (and) Security" go.
It's a reminder -- as if one was needed -- that Iraq, while far from the cauldron of violence and destruction it once was, is not the safest place to set up shop.
An Investment Risk
Security has definitely improved in the capital of Baghdad, and throughout the country. September's death toll from violence was the lowest in five months, and less than half what it was one year ago.
But attacks are still a daily occurrence. On October 18, a bomb attached to a motorcycle exploded near a popular cafe in a largely Sunni district of Baghdad, killing five people and injuring 16.
And in August, two truck bombs were detonated at ministry buildings in Baghdad, killing more than 100 people and wounding hundreds.
The attacks shook Iraqis' confidence in the government's security policy, which is under scrutiny as January's parliamentary elections approach.
For the Obama administration, which is winding down its military commitment in Iraq as it increases it in Afghanistan, an economically strong Iraq is a stable Iraq.
And a stable Iraq, it believes, benefits the entire Middle East.
"A strong, free, prosperous Iraq is not only important for Iraqis, but also is key to a strong and stable region," Clinton said.
"Iraq sits at a global crossroads, and it is a country that, because of its religious and ethnic diversity, has a great potential for connecting up far beyond its own borders in terms of investments and other kinds of opportunities."
With that view, it's not surprising that the United States is leading not only the drive for democracy in Iraq, but also the drive for dollars.
"Now is the time for both Iraq and its friends, like the United States, to demonstrate how there can be a new, more prosperous, peaceful future for Iraq," Clinton told the packed hotel ballroom.
Even with the encouragement of the U.S government, however, the bravest investor might think twice before plunging his money and energy into such a fragile country.
As Iraq's investment chief Al-Araji himself admitted, "Few investors feel comfortable being first in any new opportunity."
But he added, "Those who have the vision to be first often reap greater benefits than those who hold back."