Maliki appeals to Germany to increase investment in Iraq

By Judy Dempsey

BERLIN: Eager to attract technological know-how and investment, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq appealed Tuesday to German industry to put aside reservations over security and help modernize Iraq’s energy infrastructure.

Maliki, who was given military honors in Berlin before he met Chancellor Angela Merkel, said it was time for Germany and Iraq to open a “new chapter” in relations, an indication that Germany’s staunch opposition to the U.S.-led war against Iraq in 2003 was no reason to prevent investment by German companies.

“We do not judge our partners on the basis of whether or not they were militarily involved in toppling Saddam,” Maliki said during an interview with the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel before his state visit. “The decisions back then corresponded to the national will of the countries, and we respect that.”

Axel Nitschke, director of the foreign business department of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce, said Tuesday that there were “huge opportunities” for doing business in Iraq. He said these included building up a new automobile industry and improving the energy infrastructure.

“During the 1960s and 1970s, German businesses in Iraq were among the country’s most important trading partners,” Nitschke said. “We need to return to that.”

German exports to Iraq amounted to just €320 million, or $510 million, last year, making Iraq Germany’s 100th most important trading partner, according to the German economics ministry. Nitschke said that he expected double-digit growth rates in the coming years.

This month, Economics Minister Michael Glos went to Iraq in an effort to open doors for German industry and to reassure German companies that the country had become safer. He was the first cabinet-level German minister to visit since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Still, German companies, including Hochtief, one of the biggest construction groups, said Tuesday they were wary of doing business in Iraq, largely because of the security situation.

While Maliki made a sales pitch, saying Iraq was “a rich country” endowed with lucrative energy sources, he also asked that Germany reconsider its policy on refugees.

The German government, particularly Wolfgang Schäuble, the conservative interior minister, has said priority should be given to Christian refugees. Iraq’s small Christian community suffers heavy persecution and intimidation, according to the Interior Ministry and churches here.

Schäuble’s position has been welcomed by Christian churches, which have expressed alarm at sectarian violence, the bombing of churches and killings of clergymen.

But human rights organizations, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, have asked Berlin to adopt a more inclusive stance.

On Tuesday, Schäuble met his Iraqi counterpart, Jawad al-Bulani, to discuss the issue, in particular how the European Union’s 27 member states should share the burden in giving temporary refuge to Iraqis.

EU interior ministers will meet again Thursday in an attempt to reach a common policy toward Iraqi refugees. The issue was raised last April, but since then, no united policy has been agreed upon.

When asked about discrimination against Christians, Maliki, speaking after his meeting with Merkel, replied: “We are proud of all Iraqis. All Iraqis were needed for rebuilding the country.”

According to the UN, more than 4.7 million Iraqis have fled their homes or left the country.

More than 2.7 million moved to other parts of Iraq, and an additional 2 million live in neighboring Syria and Jordan.

Tens of thousands have also sought refuge in Europe, with Sweden taking in from 19,000 to 20,000 without giving preferential treatment to any group or religion.

In 2006, for example, more than 19,494 Iraqis applied for asylum throughout the EU countries, of which 9,065 sought refuge in Sweden, 2,585 in Germany and 2,506 in the Netherlands. Fewer than 950 applied for asylum in Britain and only 153 in France. During 2007, the number of applicants seeking asylum in Germany had increased to 4,327, with Sweden dealing with 18,559 applicants and Greece, probably because of its proximity to the region, dealing with more than 5,400.