WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama urged Iraq on Tuesday to complete an election law so that a January poll is not delayed, and he lauded a shift in U.S.-Iraqi relations toward an increased focus on investment and commerce.
Obama, who met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at the White House, also said he stood by plans to have all U.S. troops out of the country by 2011.
“We are very interested, both of us, in making sure that Iraq has an election law that is completed on time so that elections can take place on time in January,” Obama said, with Maliki at his side.
“That is consistent with the transition that has been taking place, and I re-emphasized my commitment to Prime Minister Maliki that we will have our combat troops out of Iraq by August of next year, and all of our troops out of Iraq by 2011.”
The law that will govern the national election in January was initially delayed by a dispute over what kind of voting system should be used — an open list system under which individual candidates are identified, or a closed list under which voters can only pick parties, not candidates.
Maliki and his coalition are seen as likely to benefit from an open list, while his main Shi’ite Muslim rivals would not.
That debate was superseded this week by controversy over the fate of the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oilfields.
The United Nations has proposed giving the Kurdish population in Kirkuk an automatic 50 percent plus one vote. Initially accepted by all parties, that proposal is now opposed by Arab legislators.
“We have also discussed the issue of the elections and the importance that these elections be held on time, based on the national principles,” Maliki said, speaking after Obama.
Obama, whose military focus has shifted largely to Afghanistan from Iraq, said his talks with Maliki were wide-ranging and included an emphasis on business.
“What is wonderful about this trip is that it represents a transition in our bilateral relationship so that we are moving now to issues beyond security and we are beginning to talk about economy, trade, commerce,” Obama said.
“We’ve seen over the last several months progress being made on providing clarification about investment laws inside of Iraq. There are obviously enormous opportunities for our countries to do business together.”
Maliki’s visit coincided with a U.S.-Iraqi business and investment conference in Washington.
Lingering insecurity, widespread corruption and legal ambiguities mean Iraq remains a difficult place for investors to put their money more than six years after the invasion.
But Iraq recently has made sudden and unexpected progress toward securing multibillion dollar deals with some of the world’s biggest oil companies.
While few expect the companies to invest much money in Iraq until after the January election, when a new government is installed, the potential deals herald what could be the start of a massive economic boom.
“Iraq has moved beyond a dictatorship and beyond the destruction and we are trying to rebuild all our sectors of agriculture, oil sectors, tourism and so forth,” Maliki said.
“We want to give the U.S. companies an opportunity to be present in investing in Iraq.”
Additional reporting by Michael Christie