WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki meets U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday during a trip to the United States to boost economic cooperation and encourage foreign investors to return to Iraq.
WHAT IS THE STATE OF THE IRAQI ECONOMY?
The Maliki government has opened up the oil sector and is trying to coax major firms into Iraq to modernize power plants, build apartment blocks, overhaul sewage systems and much more.
But efforts to secure Western investment, even in the lucrative oil sector, have been halting as investors are concerned that Iraq’s legal and regulatory framework is not robust enough to protect their rights and property.
Oil insiders were disappointed last month by a highly anticipated oil and gas auction that, due to Iraq’s demanding payment terms, ended up producing a deal to develop just one of eight major fields on the block.
The government, which relies on oil exports for more than 95 percent of its income, will need foreign cash more than ever if oil prices remain modest.
The government approved a supplementary budget on Sunday that would bring 2009 spending to at least $61 billion, less than the $69 billion spending plan in 2008 when oil prices hit their highest level, around $147 a barrel.
HOW STABLE IS IRAQ?
After two years of bloody sectarian conflict that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war, violence has sharply subsided, although a recent spate of bomb attacks blamed on al Qaeda has raised concerns about the ability of Iraq’s security forces to keep the peace as the 130,000 remaining U.S. troops withdraw.
U.S. forces withdrew from Iraqi cities and towns last month as part of Obama’s plan to pull out all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. U.S. soldiers now operate from bases on the outskirts of cities and are subject to Iraqi restrictions on their movements. This has riled some in the U.S. military, but the Obama administration has sought to play down any suggestion of tensions, saying the problems are being worked through.
After weathering a Sunni Arab-led insurgency against U.S. forces and later a wave of sectarian violence that pitted majority Shi’ite Muslims against minority Sunnis, Iraq has entered a period of relative stability.
But Iraq experts fear that a territorial dispute between Iraq’s Kurds and the Arab-led government in Baghdad over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk may trigger a new conflict that could unravel recent security gains.
WHAT DOES MALIKI HOPE TO ACHIEVE?
Maliki will use his trip to the United States to assert Iraq’s sovereignty. He wants to normalize relations with Washington and shift the emphasis away from security. The Obama administration is similarly minded.
The main aim of his trip is to persuade investors that Iraq is stable enough for them to return and he is due to attend an investment conference. Iraq needs money to rebuild after years of war and improve basic services like water and electricity for its 28 million people.
“Maliki’s message to Obama will be that Iraq is still important, that you have to continue to take Iraq seriously. That not only means fighting al Qaeda but also developing a network of collaboration that goes far beyond the military relationship,” said Daniel Serwer, vice president of peace and stability operations at the United States Institute of Peace.
Maliki will also lobby hard for the lifting of Iraq’s Chapter 7 status when he meets United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York on Wednesday.
WHAT IS CHAPTER 7?
Under a U.N. Security Council “Chapter 7” resolution from 1991, Iraq is required to pay a specific percentage of its oil revenues to several countries as war reparations for the 1991 Gulf war, most of which goes to Kuwait. Baghdad’s government views the size of the payments, 5 percent of its oil revenues, as an unfair burden created by former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, and would like them reduced.
To achieve this, Iraq would like its Chapter 7 status lifted, so it can renegotiate its reparation payments. But Kuwait has successfully blocked this by lobbying key council members to oppose the idea. Security Council diplomats said the 15-nation council might consider removing Iraq’s Chapter 7 status at the end of this year.
WHAT WILL MALIKI DO DURING HIS U.S. VISIT?
Along with meeting Ban and Obama, he is due to hold talks with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. He will also visit Arlington National Cemetery to pay homage to the more than 4,300 American soldiers who have died in Iraq since 2003.