US envoy calls for Gulf unity - Iraq 'open for investors' - US extends $3bn credit line - Baghdad eyes 7m bpd output

KUWAIT: Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Sabah, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, EU Foreign Policy Chief Frederica Mogherini, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani and Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa pose with other officials for a group photo yesterday during a ministerial meeting of member states of the US-led military coalition that has been battling the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. - Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat

KUWAIT: US-Kuwait relations are very strong, said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after being received by HH the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah yesterday. "We have a shared interest in terms of security for the region. We spoke about the importance of GCC unity, which supports the security of the region as well," he pointed out. "We also talked about the important opportunities for economic relationships as well."

Tillerson said "the most recent transaction is of Kuwait upgrading its air force with the purchase of F/A-18 aircraft". "It's very important for Kuwait's defense, but also important for the integrated security of the region. I think there will be other discussions of future economic opportunities as well," he added.

Tillerson later urged allies to stay focused on fighting the Islamic State group at a ministerial meeting in Kuwait of the US-led military coalition that has been fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, being held in parallel with a conference on reconstruction in Iraq. The militant group has lost much of the territory it once controlled when it seized large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014.

"The end of major combat operations does not mean we have achieved the enduring defeat of ISIS," Tillerson said, using another acronym for IS. "ISIS remains a serious threat to the stability of the region, our homelands and other parts of the globe," he said. Iraq declared victory over IS in December, but the extremist group still has a presence in Syria, where the US-led coalition has backed a Kurdish-Arab alliance fighting the militants. And Iraqi government forces backed by a US-led coalition last week staged a major operation against "IS remnants" in the northeast.

The US-backed campaign against IS in Syria has been complicated since a Turkey-backed Arab militia last month began an offensive against Kurdish forces in the northwestern region of Afrin. Tillerson said the United States would nonetheless maintain an "ISIS-focused military presence in Syria" and "continue to train local security forces" - a reference to Washington's contentious Kurdish allies.

He said IS had the capacity to re-emerge in liberated territories of Iraq and Syria or elsewhere in the world. "Every one of us must continue to adapt and strengthen our coalition to counter ISIS' own network of foreign fighters, financing and propaganda. We have seen in Iraq and Syria the consequences of an ISIS territorial presence. History must not be allowed to repeat itself elsewhere," Tillerson said.

Meanwhile, war-battered Iraq sought yesterday to attract international investors to rebuild the country at a parallel reconstruction conference in Kuwait, offering hundreds of projects and touting extensive legal guarantees. "Iraq is open for investors," declared Sami Al-Araji, chairman of Iraq's National Investment Commission, on the second day of the conference.

Although the US government was not expected to pledge direct financial aid at the conference, Tillerson said the official US export credit agency, the Export-Import Bank of the United States (EXIM), would sign with Iraq's finance ministry a $3 billion memorandum of understanding "that will set a stage for future cooperation". "Doing business in Iraq can be complicated, but the Iraqi market has vast potential," said Tillerson, saying the country had demonstrated it was "open for business".

Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said yesterday Iraq could not rebuild without outside help. "Iraqis feel that the world is with them. As they were victorious against Daesh they will be, with your support, victorious in the battle of reconstruction," he told the conference, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was ready to answer a US call for it to expand its small training mission in Iraq to support reconstruction. US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis sent a letter to NATO last month calling for a formal NATO train-and-advise mission, Reuters reported.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said all of Iraq should benefit from "reconstruction, stabilization and national reconciliation". He cited "Kurdistan, which took more than its share of the burden and the sacrifices" in the fight against IS. Arriving in Kuwait for the conference, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said his country would "stand by the Iraqi people forever". "At a time when only a few countries were participating in the reconstruction of Iraq, Iranian companies were active in building roads in the country and providing Iraqis with engineering services," he was quoted by state news agency IRNA.

Baghdad says it needs nearly $90 billion to rebuild devastated homes, schools, hospitals and economic infrastructure after three years of war against IS. It is a tall order, given skepticism about the government's record on corruption. Iraq in 2016 came 11th from the bottom on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. Araji said that Iraq, which has been either at war or under international sanctions since 1980, is offering projects in almost every field of its economy, from oil to agriculture.

World Bank officials joined Iraqi government representatives yesterday in Kuwait City to seek pledges from more than 2,000 representatives of international firms. They talked up legal guarantees available in post-IS Iraq, pointing to an investment law that offers ownership, unlimited cash transfers and tax breaks, among other benefits.

Nizar Nasser Hussein, head of the legal department at the National Investment Commission, said the latest version of the law does not distinguish between foreign and Iraqi investors. "Foreign investors can establish Iraqi companies," he told AFP, adding that investors would be given lease contracts for 50 years, renewable for a similar period. Investors will also be exempt from customs duties and income tax for 10-15 years, Hussein said. Araji said investors in Iraq will find "high risks, but high returns".

Iraq, the second largest oil producer in the OPEC cartel, also plans to sharply increase its output capacity to seven million barrels a day by 2022, its oil minister said. Iraq now has an oil production capacity of five million barrels per day (bpd) but is pumping just over 4.7 million under an OPEC output cut agreement. "Our target is to reach seven million bpd by 2022," Jabbar Al-Luaybi said, while presenting oil and gas projects available for private foreign investors.

Luaybi said Iraq sits on proven crude reserves of 145 billion barrels but he is confident the figure will jump to around 250 billion barrels with sufficient investment. He said the war-battered nation plans to boost natural gas production to seven billion cubic feet per day by 2021 from the current output of 2.7 billion cubic feet. Luaybi called on foreign investors to seize huge investment opportunities in the oil and gas sector where billions of dollars are required immediately in accordance with an Iraqi reconstruction plan.

The minister said IS attacks in Iraq had reduced the country's refining capacity from 930,000 bpd to just 450,000 bpd. But reconstruction efforts have succeeded in regaining 70,000 barrels per day. He outlined plans to build seven new refineries with a production capacity of 700,000 bpd by 2021. Luaybi also outlined plans to build new pipelines and export facilities mainly in the oil-rich southern region.

At a joint press conference later with Tillerson, Kuwait's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Sabah announced that the participants in the ministerial meeting of the global coalition to defeat IS adopted a number of guidelines to ensure efforts to defeat the organization. Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled said the participants in the meeting agreed to continue their efforts and coordination among them to combat this organization and the phenomenon of foreign fighters, as well as coordination of communications in order to address the propaganda campaigns of IS through various means of communication, whether the media or the Internet.

Tillerson pledged to provide $200 million to support the efforts of the international coalition against IS. He expressed his thanks to Kuwait for mediating in the Gulf crisis in order to resolve it, pointing out that the US will seek to restore cooperation among the GCC countries. He also congratulated Kuwait for assuming the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council and for exerting pressure on North Korea, encouraging it to take a different path and renouncing its nuclear weapons.

By Faten Omar and Agencies