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Jordan desperately wants to do business with Iraq, but how?

AMMAN, Jordan—Hundreds of Jordanian businessmen met Thursday for a conference about Iraq to ponder a question as old as war: What happens to the spoils in a battle-torn country?

The meeting had a simple title, "Doing Business With Iraq." But the idea of setting up shop in a country that has no government—or systemized garbage collection, for that matter—apparently is a baffling enterprise so far.

U.S. diplomats and businessmen explained that the doors to Iraq aren't yet open to regional investors. There are other things to worry about first, such as food and water, they said.

More than 800 attendees, mostly Jordanian businessmen, crammed into a Grand Hyatt ballroom and spent nine hours asking panelists how businesses will operate in Iraq.

For the most part, no one had answers:

_Jordan has warehouses full of food and goods that could be shipped to Iraq. What would it take to make that happen?

"The war has been finished for seven weeks now," said Richard Greco, special assistant to the U.S. secretary of defense and a policy adviser to L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq. "I don't have any specific answers for you."

_What will happen to contracts signed with the Iraqi government during Saddam Hussein's tenure?

"At this time I do not have the answers to your questions," said Rafael Jabba, general development officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which awarded millions of dollars in contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq.

_How can Jordanian subcontractors team up with Iraqi subcontractors doing work for Bechtel (the recipient of a USAID contract for reconstruction that could be worth $680 million)?

"Frankly, I don't have answers about how you go about doing that," said Tom Elkins, acquisitions services manager for Bechtel. More than 4,000 companies have registered as possible subcontractors already, Elkins said, and he expects that number to reach 10,000.

While at the end of the day it was clear that the pot is sweet, the way there was very much in doubt.

It wasn't the message the attendees were expecting.

On Wednesday night, after registering for the conference, several men went out on the hotel bar's patio, smoking Cuban cigars and talking about the wealth to be had in Iraq. Overlooking an ornate blue mosque, the men ordered from an extensive drinks menu and told stories and jokes. Iraq, their neighbor to the east, was an old trading partner, and the businessmen had only to make the right connections.

By Thursday evening, most had glum looks on their faces.

Before the first Persian Gulf War, Iraq was Jordan's biggest trading partner, accounting for 20 percent of Jordanian exports. Jordan was betting that once the sanctions against Iraq were lifted—and that has happened—there would be an economic boom.

Instead, some Jordanian companies are just trying to get their money back from contracts signed with Saddam's regime.

Laith al Siwan was one of many who crowded around Jabba, of USAID, asking whether the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq planned to honor pre-existing contracts. Jabba told him the same thing he told all the others: It's something that hasn't been decided yet.

Al Siwan is the engineering division manager of Winter International, a health and engineering company with five offices in Iraq. The Iraqi government, he said, signed contracts totaling more than $100 million with his company, for everything from 200 ambulances to the construction of waste incinerators.

"Nobody was able to give me any answers," he said. "It's confusing and it's all gray. If we knew these people (the U.S.) were going to solve the problem, it would maybe be OK, but there's a fear that these contracts will not be honored."

(Lasseter reports for the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.