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Iraq stock exchange is open for business

BAGHDAD - Talk about a high-risk investment.

How much money would you be willing to pump into a stock market that has its headquarters in a war zone? What if the market used a wall lined with whiteboards and colored markers to track daily activity - and there isn't a single computer in sight?

Despite the war-torn backdrop and a Stone Age trading system, Taha Abdulsalam, the CEO of the fledgling Iraq Stock Exchange, thinks investors shouldn't hesitate to dish out their dough - in dinars, preferably - to buy shares from the Baghdad-based market.

Since the stock exchange opened up to foreign investors earlier this month, Abdulsalam has been making his sales pitch in e-mails, phone calls and media interviews:

"Yes, there are many dangers in Iraq. Yes, there are many things you must accept. We have terrorists, we have political problems - any kind of problem you see in the world, yes, we have it," Abdulsalam said one recent morning. He was sitting behind his desk and smoking a cigarette while brokers clamored in the tiled lobby downstairs that serves as the market floor.

"But you must accept that risk because the prices are very low and there is an opportunity for you to be a great investor in Iraq in the future."

So far two "Arabic people" - Abdulsalam wouldn't say who - have purchased $2,000 worth of shares from the Iraq Stock Exchange. Abdulsalam said that an American company whom he wouldn't identify also had expressed interest, but decided to hold off, leaving the 3-year-old market's international trading venture shaky at best.

"The response was not as they expected," said Salam Smeasim, a Baghdad economist and advisor to the Ministry of Women's Affairs. "Foreign investors are very afraid about their money. This is Iraq."

Iraqi and U.S. officials have long encouraged foreign governments and investors to pour their money into Iraq. But without any Iraqi market shares to purchase, that economic strategy could be severely hampered.

Abdulsalam asks how the Iraqi government can possibly carry out potential plans to privatize the multitude of Saddam-era state-run factories without a stock market? And how can entrepreneurs build a new economy?

When business professionals want to start a new company, "they are encouraged to do that because they know there is a market and they can sell it again," Abdulsalam said. "There is a circle of development. If you establish a company, that means you are increasing the capacity of society and hiring employees" - thus helping to bring stability to the restless population of unemployed young men who stray toward insurgent groups.

Abdulsalam, who has a master's degree in economics from Baghdad University, worked in the research department of the government-run stock exchange in the early 1990s. That market was dissolved after Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in 2003.

In June 2004, a group of brokers started the private Iraq Stock Exchange. The exchange has grown from 15 to 93 companies and is now estimated to be worth $2 billion. Its Web site, www.isx-iq.net, lists 50 brokers.

It is monitored by the Iraqi Securities Commission, and Abdulsalam insists that the market is full of checks and balances. "Our procedures are clean," he said.

But despite improvements over the Saddam-era market, the stock exchange still uses whiteboards and markers to track daily market activity.

That's about to change.

The biggest foreign investment in the market so far is from the U.S. government: It's supplying the exchange a new set of computers and flat-screen monitors. Most employees will soon have their own workstations. Sometime this October, the market will shift to the new system - and more closely resemble a 21st Century stock exchange.

Abdulsalam hopes the computerized system will attract outside investors who may be waiting for the changes to be made rather than leave their money to the perils of erasers and whiteboards.

If investors come calling, the Iraq Stock Exchange will be ready, Abdulsalam said.

"You have to study everything, you have to prepare everything, and then you must move very fast," he said. "We have done everything for the foreign investors, and now we are just waiting for them to act."

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