U.S. and Iraqi officials have launched a series of talks aimed at promoting private investment in Iraq's struggling economy. Government officials and businesses executives from the two countries have gathered in Irbil, Iraq, to discuss opportunities for American companies in northern Iraq. VOA's Barry Newhouse attended Tuesday's meeting, and has this report.

The talks are officially called "Iraqi Business Gateways" and the first round is aimed at highlighting the merits of Iraq's northern Kurdistan region. But American and Iraqi officials also want companies to come here with a plan to expand into the rest of the country.

Mohammed Raouf Mohammed is the minister of trade of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

He says Kurdistan is the appropriate and safe gateway for the rehabilitation of Iraq because of security and stability.

Officials say they hope northern Iraq's political stability and lack of sectarian violence will allow companies to build up experience and knowledge of the Iraqi economy. The hope is that companies will eventually expand to the south, where ongoing fighting has stifled nearly all economic growth.

Frank Lavin is the undersecretary for international trade at the Commerce Department.

"All societies need job creation, business expansion, new opportunities," he said. "We think by working together and sharing ideas we can help Iraq down that path of economic growth and progress."

Officials say Irbil's growth in recent years is an indicator of Iraq's potential. Private investors sunk about $2 billion into the economy of the greater Irbil area in 2006 and signs of growth abound.

Construction cranes tower over the skyline, billboards advertising Korean mobile phones and cars line the roads, and the city's new airport is building one of the longest runways in the middle east and has plans for a Fedex shipping hub.

Irbil and the rest of northern Iraq still face serious problems - violence in the rest of the country severely isolates this region, restricting future growth. Local businesses also struggle with rising fuel costs and less than two hours of electricity per day.

But Andrew Wylegala, a U.S. commerce department official serving in Iraq, says private businesses in Iraq can offer some help.

He said, "Government has its work set out for it to continue on basic infrastructure problems, but I would think that pushing private sector solutions in this environment is a great idea."

He says an American company building a $140-million electricity-generating plant is an example of such a project. The plant is to start selling electricity to the Kurdistan Regional Government by March 2008.

Some local business leaders in Irbil say U.S. investment continues to be limited in Iraqi Kurdistan partly because the U.S. State Department still "strongly warns" Americans against going to Iraq.

Japan, Britain, Germany and Sweden have recently downgraded their official travel warnings for the region, but Andrew Wylegala says he has not heard of any plans for a similar change in the U.S. advisory.