“The phosphates would be used to produce fertilisers for the Chinese and Indian markets,” says Khaldoun Bassam, director general of geology at the ministry. “Akashat has good infrastructure – water pipelines, paved roads and rail links – and strong mineral reserves – 500 million tonnes of limestone and 200 million tonnes of kaoline. It could become an industrial centre like Dammam in Saudi Arabia, with industries concentrated in the area.”

The evolution of an industrial hub in the desert could be a boon to the area’s Sunni population, once thought to lack a natural resource it could claim as its own.

For the Kurdish and Shia federalist political forces, there is another motive for highlighting the industrial opportunities in the province: demonstrating to Sunnis that they too would have an economic interest in supporting a devolved confederal model of government. Currently, though, officials stress the undiluted commercial potential of Iraqi mineral assets.

Smelter-grade alumina could be mined, says Bassam, and potential investors would not necessarily have to plough billions of dollars into potentially risky greenfield aluminium smelter construction.

“Companies would not have to build new plants as existing cement facilities could be converted,” says Bassam. “There are raw
materials in abundance and mining is low-cost in Iraq.”

Ministers tout the untapped geological resource beneath the ground. Besides phosphates and sulphur, surveys have indicated usable deposits of copper, gypsum, bitumen, dolomite and marble.

Sulphur has also been recovered as a byproduct of oil and gas, and uranium has been produced from the Akashat phosphate operation, which was a big concern for the international community during the Saddam Hussein era.

Robust prices

Although Industry & Mines Minister Fawzi Hariri talks up the possibility of usable deposits of iron ore being found, officials acknowledge that commercial quantities are unlikely to be recovered.

Copper and gold are more abundant, and make commercial sense with commodity prices at robust levels. “Copper trading at nearly $4 a pound on the international market justifies spending the money,” says Bassam.

The Kurdish Regional Government region has substantial reserves of copper and gold, enough to elicit the attention of UK/ Australian resources giant Rio Tinto.

Transport networks will need to improve if Iraq is to realise its ambition of becoming an exporter of minerals to the energy-hungry Asian markets. But such is the mood of confidence, Baghdad’s strategists are ready to proceed with new mining-based ventures.