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Iraqi Minister Hails Economic Progress

Iraq's minister of industry says his country is making real economic strides in the post-Saddam era, but any rapid pullout of U.S. troops would put that progress at risk. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where the minister spoke Wednesday.

Industry and Minerals Minister Fawzi Hariri says rebuilding and expanding Iraq's economy amid civil strife in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion has been, as he put it, "challenging." Among his goals is to transform industrial output from outdated, state-owned operations to modernized production that responds to the free market.

"The vision that we have is to open up the state-owned enterprises for the private sector, and develop a partnership or joint venture. And that will be a first in the history of Iraq," he said.

Hariri, who spoke to reporters at Washington's National Press Club, says domestic and foreign investment is flowing into Iraq, and the country's private sector is expanding. He also says that Iraq is beginning to make the political progress necessary to solidify and sustain economic progress.

But he says the security situation remains fragile, and Iraq will continue to need the backing of U.S. military forces if it is to prosper.

"Clearly, Iraq as it stands and its military capacity is unable to sustain any foreign intervention on its own," he added. "And therefore, we believe we need to have the U.S. forces still present in Iraq. The removal of forces, especially in a fast or quick way, will not only put Iraq in danger, it will put the whole regional stability in danger."

Both major Democratic presidential candidates have pledged to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, arguing that the indefinite presence of American soldiers has made it easier for Iraq's leaders to put off painful decisions necessary for national reconciliation. President Bush and the presumed Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, have pledged to retain U.S. forces in Iraq until lasting democracy is secured.

Recent weeks have seen media reports of vast oil profits in Iraq, leading some U.S. politicians to question why the United States is spending billions of dollars to rebuild the country. Minister Hariri said it is only in the last year that Iraq's national finances have improved, and that Iraq is doing all it can to invest in reconstruction projects. He added that Iraq is willing to repay foreign governments that take part in efforts to rebuild his country.