ARLINGTON, Va., Dec. 4 — The room had the feel of a souk, a constant buzz, chatter in lots of languages, display tables showing off wares.
In fact, it was a marketplace of sorts, just off the lobby of a Sheraton hotel here, but one with a specific purpose: more than 400 people from 30 countries had gathered Wednesday and Thursday for a conference focusing on how to rebuild Iraq and get a piece of the $18.3 billion Congress has authorized for the effort.
There were bankers, architects, lawyers, engineers, real estate developers, insurance agents, construction specialists, transportation experts, communication company owners, investment counselors and more than 40 Iraqi officials working with the Coalition Provisional Authority, who were eager to meet as many suitors as possible.
If the participants conveyed a common message it was this: despite suicide bombers, snipers and attacks from Saddam Hussein loyalists, Iraq is open for business.
There were sobering reminders of the daily dangers that confront both military personnel and civilians, including one company selling vehicle armor protection and another selling walls so strong that they could withstand .50-caliber bullets. "We're working on one now that will be able to sustain a shoulder-fired rocket attack," said Prentice Perry, vice president of the wall company, Therma Steel. The company motto, he said, is, "We stand behind our walls."
But for the most part, the networking was upbeat, as business and government leaders sought each other out as potential partners in the enormous task of reconstructing the country.
"Our purpose is to help United States companies connect with Middle Eastern countries and with individual Iraqis with lots of emphasis on the alliances already on the ground," said Samir Farajallah, president of New Fields, the United Arab Emirates company that organized this meeting and another one last month. "You hear a lot of negative stories out of Iraq, but the truth of the matter is, there are a lot of very successful stories."
As the ranking Iraqi participating in the conference, Sami al-Maajoun, the minister of labor and social affairs, said he was "very encouraged" by American and British efforts to engage in rebuilding.
So far, the efforts have grown out of an initial round of contracts between the United States and large multinational corporations like Bechtel and Halliburton, to take on big-ticket items like safeguarding oil fields, paving roads and rebuilding schools.
In marked contrast to the openness of the meeting this week, those contracts were often awarded without competitive bidding in a process that has been criticized as being inscrutable to outsiders.
Now, Mr. Maajoun said, Iraq is ready for many more partners.
"Iraqis are crying out for employment," he said. "We want to rebuild. Construction means jobs that will bring Iraq back to the situation it should have been in as far as its own wealth is concerned."
The efforts promise to be anything but easy, complicated by developments on the ground and evolving laws arising from an evolving government. While large projects require direct participation and approval by the United States government, smaller ones may not, and the distinctions are not always clear.
"We explain how the processes work — or not work — and give some idea of how they may work in the future," said Bill Espinosa of Pillsbury Winthrop, a law firm represented at the conference that does extensive work in international development. "We've seen a lot of interest in Iraq, but there is also a lot of frustration involved in a significant way."
One source of that frustration, said Sam Kubba, chief executive of the American Iraqi Chamber of Commerce, are the competing views of how Iraq should achieve self-rule. The Iraqi Governing Council, appointed by the provisional authority, agreed in a vote Sunday that full national elections sought by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's senior Shiite cleric, would be the best way to choose an interim government. The council established a committee to examine whether it was feasible to organize full elections for June.
Mr. Kubba, whose organization of American Iraqi businessmen was set up this year in Washington, called their differences a potential disincentive to future investment, making them "a very serious conflict that holds serious consequences if not resolved."
Still, the uncertain electoral, financial and military landscape did not seem to discourage dozens of those attending the conference from pursuing their goals.
Nick Katsiotis, vice president of a construction company based in Washington, is bidding on two housing projects of 504 units each, one in Mosul and the other in Kirkuk.
Gordon Bobbitt, marketing manager for Kalmar, a Swedish company, was trying to sell huge all-terrain vehicles that can transport shipping crates anywhere.
Igor Salaru, owner of the Brazilian company Icatel, the world's largest manufacturer of pay phones, was seeking Iraqi connections to develop a new system of public phones.
Then there was Hisham Ashkouri, an Iraqi-born architect now living in Boston, who wore a bright red bow tie and carried a case filled with brochures and CD's that show off his latest design — a soaring 31-story hotel and theater complex called Cinema Sinbad that he wants to build in downtown Baghdad.
He said he was "80 to 90 percent there" with financial backing, government support and a commercial sponsor, the Starwood Hotel and Resorts Company.
"There's always room for problems," he said. "But with my emotional side speaking, if something like this can become a big part of reconstructing Baghdad that can show the local population alternatives to violence and disruption, to me, that's why we're going ahead. That's why I'm working on it."