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Iraqi Chamber of Commerce Faces Test of Perseverance

August 24, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Clutching portfolios boasting of the successful firms they ran before the U.S.-led invasion, hundreds of Iraqi businessmen -- and a few entrepreneurial women -- flocked to the inaugural gathering of the Iraqi-American Chamber of Commerce here Saturday hoping to take part in a forum to "jump-start the private sector."

Instead, the meeting was a test of the wiles, perseverance and humility of Iraqi businesspeople, as only the most determined managed to pass through rings of heavily armed soldiers under orders to keep out everyone who had not been vetted by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Confronted by an ever-rising threat of terrorism, the U.S.-run civilian administration here has had to step up security so profoundly that it can hardly get its work done. The massive former convention center housing much of the occupational bureaucracy was evacuated for bomb threats twice in the last week, and stiff security measures imposed after Tuesday's U.N. compound bombing now require visitors to arrive two hours before events.

"We didn't want it in this place. We don't like this level of security," complained Ehsan Hussein Ali, an Internet services provider and one of the initiators of the chamber session billed as a chance for Iraqi entrepreneurs to find U.S. partners for joint ventures.

The gathering was held in the fortress-like setting because some occupational authority officials made that a condition for attending, said Hussein Ali. But none of the civilian liaisons showed up.

Those Iraqis who did manage to clear the security hurdles -- before U.S. soldiers shut off access completely -- were disappointed. Most had hoped to lay out their business plans to U.S. investors and were miffed to learn none were here yet. Instead they were simply asked to fill out a survey.

"This shouldn't be happening in this way. It's not acceptable to summon everyone and put them through this security for nothing," groused Haitham Abdulkareem, who nurtures hopes of rebuilding his air-conditioning enterprise.

U.N. sanctions that prevented most Iraqi trade with developed nations have been lifted, but the country still lacks the stability and legal framework that would give foreign firms confidence to do business here.

The sole American to turn up at the meeting, albeit 90 minutes into the two-hour session, urged the few dozen Iraqis still there to be patient and assured them that U.S. industry is eager to partner up.

"It's a chicken-and-egg thing. You need security to get Americans to work here, while the best way to enhance security is to get a functioning economy," said Capt. James Sosnicky, an Army economic development officer who is building a Web site that can pair Iraqi industrialists with American companies interested in joint production projects.

Occupational authorities understand the urgency of getting the commercial blood circulating in this country at an economic standstill, Sosnicky said, noting that the U.S. Department of Commerce has received 50,000 inquiries from American firms about opportunities for joint ventures with Iraqis.

Sami Boghos, a partner in the family-run Levant Express heavy-transport business, noted that the massive reconstruction projects planned for Iraq would require much shuttling of bulky materials and cargo containers.

"We came here because we were told we could find American partners at the meeting," said the disappointed entrepreneur, showing a journalist his loose-leaf binder of earnings reports and plastic-sleeved photos of his firm's big wheels. "Unfortunately we couldn't find anyone. It was just Iraqis."

More businesspeople stood outside the barbed-wire and sandbagged cordons than made it into the convention hall, as soldiers have been erring on the side of caution amid a wave of sabotage and terrorism.

At a news conference, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, disputed the notion that heightened security was slowing the reconstruction effort.

"We have hundreds of reconstruction projects going forward," he said, adding only that the thwarting of the free-market advocates was "regrettable."

Sosnicky assured the entrepreneurs that the next meeting would be more productive.

"We want to have these meetings someplace more accessible to Iraqis," Sosnicky said, "someplace where you don't have to go through 16 different checkpoints and searches."

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