Caught in crossfire

Even as India grapples with the economic impact of the war in Iraq, it has been dealt another stunning blow.

Forty Indians employed in Mosul as construction workers by a Baghdad-based company are believed to be in the custody of the Sunni jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Over the last fortnight, ISIS has captured swathes of territory in northern Iraq, including key cities like Mosul and Tikrit. It is unclear whether they are being held hostage – no ransom demand has been raised yet - or in the ISIS’ custody. Media reports citing one of the workers say they are safe.

Still, the fact that they are in the hands of the ISIS, an al-Qaeda affiliated group known for its barbarism and brutality, is reason for serious concern.

India must act swiftly to secure the release of these workers. Most of the abducted workers are from Punjab. Politicians and vested interests back home will seek to gain mileage from this unfortunate incident. They must not do so as it will only reduce India’s options and weaken its hand in negotiating their safe return.

Most of the Indian nationals in Iraq are in the relatively safe Kurdistan, Basra and Najaf. However, this is no reason for complacency.

As fighting spreads, areas considered ‘safe’ will shrink. Around a 100 Indians, including 46 nurses working in a hospital in Tikrit, are trapped in ISIS-controlled areas. Unsafe roads have prevented them from fleeing or being rescued by road.

While Indian embassy officials are in touch with the nurses, their situation is tenuous.
The ISIS has posted online videos of its gruesome beheading of Iraqi soldiers. This could push Shia militias to seek revenge in similar ways.

Their confrontation in the likely battle for Baghdad will be bitter and brutal.

Indians may not be the intended target of abductions and killings but they could get caught in the crossfire. India must begin evacuation of its nationals as soon as possible as getting 10,000 people out from a war zone will not be easy.

A successful evacuation depends not just on the Indian government’s efforts or support it gets from Iraqi officials and humanitarian organisations but on the co-operation of Indians there.

They must follow instructions and leave when asked to do so. Some seem to prefer staying back for economic reasons. This is unwise. Indian officials need to counsel them to return home now.

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