By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Commerce Department said on Wednesday it will lead 15 U.S. companies, including Boeing, General Electric and Wamar International, on a trade mission in October to help rebuild Iraq.
"This mission brings business expertise into the country at a critical time," Under Secretary of Commerce Francisco Sanchez said in a statement one day after President Barack Obama declared an end to the seven-year U.S. combat mission.
The war-battered country needs investment in virtually every sector, but many foreign companies remain wary of the security risks. For those willing to take the chance, the Iraqi market "offers a vast array of business opportunities," the Commerce Department said.
Iraq's gross domestic production has more than doubled in recent years to $112 billion, and the government has budgeted more than $80 billion for construction, highways, railways, telecommunications, and security and defense and other infrastructure projects, the department said.
However, in a sign of the challenges that foreign companies face, Iraqi politicians have struggled since an election in March to form a new government. Also, the World Bank has ranked Iraq 153rd out of 183 economies on the ease of doing business.
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. The United States mainly buys oil from Iraq while its top exports to the country include trucks, drilling and telecommunications equipment.
Wamar International, whose diverse businesses include power generation, oil and gas, aviation, defense and security, already has an office in Baghdad.
Other companies tapped for the trip include America Cargo Transport Company, Bell Helicopter Textron, Bond Building Systems, KT Engineering and Ted Jacob Engineering Group and ICON Global Architectural Engineering.
They will travel in October to a heavily guarded hotel in Baghdad for meetings with senior government officials and one-on-one sessions with potential business partners in sectors such as construction, telecommunications and oil and gas.
Iraq, which has the world's third-largest oil reserves,
was hit by a series of bombings and attacks in August as United States drew its troops down to less than 50,000.
Many fear a spike in violence in the months ahead and wonder if Iraq is ready to defend itself on its own.
In a Federal Register notice last April advertising the trip, the Commerce Department warned that "trade mission members participate ... at their own risk and are advised to obtain insurance accordingly."
But with overall violence down sharply from 2006 and 2007, foreign interest in doing business in Iraq has grown.
"Companies from Lebanon, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, Egypt, China and Kuwait, among others, are already open and operating in Iraq," Brian McCleary, a senior U.S. commercial officer stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said in a recent published interview.
"Many of these countries have already led trade missions to Iraq to capture the opportunities created by Iraq's expanding market," McCleary said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)