IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — The United States opened a consulate in Iraq's Kurdish region Sunday in an effort to lure more American investors to one of the most stable and fast-growing regions in the country.
Despite being situated in a relatively safe Christian neighborhood in the Kurdish capital of Irbil, the consulate is protected by blast walls.
The Kurdish population in the northern region was largely untouched by sectarian fighting that embroiled much of Iraq and nearly brought the country to the brink of civil war several years ago.
The opening of the consulate in Irbil comes more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, but left much of Iraq shell-shocked and in turmoil.
In an effort to help boost Iraq's economy and lure businesses into the country, the consulate will largely assist U.S. companies looking to invest.
To coincide with the opening of the new consulate, Marriott International signed an agreement with Kurdish officials for a 200-room hotel and 75 executive apartments in Irbil in three years.
"Today, Irbil; tomorrow, all of Iraq," said U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey at the new consulate. "Today, Marriott; tomorrow, hundreds and thousands more American firms."
He said Iraq needs the support of the American commercial business and financial sectors.
"And America needs an even deeper relationship with all of Iraq," said Jeffrey.
The United States is now among nine countries, including Iran, Egypt and Germany, that have opened consulates in Irbil.
As a result of Kurdistan's relatively stable reputation, Western businesses have been more willing to make ventures in the area.
"Irbil is ready," said the president of Marriott International, Ed Fuller.
Jeffrey said fostering U.S. investment is a key goal to assist in the reconstruction of Iraq and compete against forces trying "to drive America out of here" — an apparent reference to Iran.
But Iran also has close ties to Iraq's government. Last week, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with a senior Iranian envoy to discuss ways to expand trade between the two countries.
Jeffrey's remarks came on the same day a U.S. soldier was killed in southern Iraq, where Iranian-backed Shiite militias have stepped up attacks against troops to push the American military out of Iraq by the end of the year. It was the third U.S. soldier to be killed in Iraq so far this month. Fifteen soldiers died in June, nearly all of them by Shiite militias in what was the bloodiest month for the U.S. military in Iraq in two years.