Though corporations and governments are drawing up evacuation plans, expats remain reluctant to leave jobs in safe areas

Even as Iraq’s besieged military engages in a desperate battle to retake the strategically vital town of Tikrit, and hold of Islamist insurgents inching ever closer to Baghdad, Indian diplomats have been told to prepare contingency plans for evacuating thousands of citizens from the country, diplomatic sources have told The Hindu. Few Indians, however, seem to believe the risks justify abandoning well-paid jobs in parts of Iraq that are still safe.

The evacuation plans are being discussed even as Iraqi forces, backed by new image- reconnaissance drones made available by both Iran and the United States of America, intensified helicopter-borne attacks on Islamist guerrillas in Tikrit on Friday.

In cities like Erbil, with large Indian populations, the war remains distant—and expatriates from have continued to pour back at the end of their summer vacations at home. “Things are quiet here so far,” said Chennai resident Patzer Joshua, an executive at an upmarket Erbil hotel. “Local staff who have families living near the frontlines between Erbil and Mosul have moved them here, fearing violence. However, I have no wish at all to leave my job”.

Kurdistan, a quasi-independent region with one of the fastest-growing economies in the region, has been a magnet for Indian workers and businesses. Thousands of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangaldeshis, Nepalis and East Asians work in the region’s service sector.

Gurjeet Singh, a Punjab resident who earlier worked in Mosul—where at least 40 Indian workers are believed to still be trapped and in ISIS custody—said he had no intention of returning home. “There’s well-paid work here”, he said simply, “and if things get bad, there’ll be well paid work somewhere else.”

Corporations struggling

International corporations have struggled to evacuate workers trapped in the fighting. The China Engineering Machinery Corporation has had little success evacuating an estimated 1,000 workers stranded at the site of an $1-billion power project near Samarra. The workers, with food and water is running short, tried leaving in a fleet of buses last week, but were forced back to their camp by fighting.

The CEMC, diplomatic sources said, then attempted to hire helicopters to evacuate workers from the Samarra site, but adequate air transport could not be found.

Erbil-based officials of a Canadian petrochemicals firm told The Hindu they had already put an informal contingency plan in place, by making twice-a-week bookings on flights to Dubai, and then cancelling them at the last moment.

“It’s expensive,” an official said, “but a lot less expensive than it will be if engineers are kidnapped from oilfields that come under attack. We’re watching the situation very carefully.”

Exodus continues

Local residents are also keeping a wary eye on events. “In the thirty-eight years since I was born”, says Arif Ahmad, who works at a cellphone store in Erbil, I’ve never known a country at peace. First it was the Iraq-Iran war, then the Iraq-Kurdish war, then the Iraq-United States war, and now this. I’ve told my wife to keep clothes and cash packed in case we have to move quickly”.

The fears have been fuelled by fighting between Kurdish Peshmerga forces and ISIS insurgents around oil-rich Kirkuk. The Rahimawa market in Kirkuk—which is emerging as a hub for black-market sales of assault weapons and jeeps abandoned by the Iraqi army—was targeted by a suicide bomber on Wednesday, the first terrorist attack since the city came under Kurdish rule.

Following the attack, tensions between the city’s Kurdish population and Sunni refugees arriving from battle-torn areas surged — raising fears that a full-blown civil war could break out.

Local residents say some order has restored in ISIS-ruled Mosul. Traders and transporters have resumed travelling to the city from Erbil, ferrying fuel and food.

However, refugees from the religious minorities continue to flee the area. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 10,000 Iraqis fled from Christian-dominated areas around Mosul into Kurdistan after mortar rounds landed near their town.

Emile Shimoun Nona, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, told media most of the city’s 1,200 Christian families in the ISIS-controlled city left for Erbil as the Iraqi army fled the city. “We as a Christian people haven’t experienced living under extremist Islamist groups,” Mr. Nona said, “so for us the future is dark.”

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