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India knocks on Iraq military door

A volunteer who has joined the Iraqi Army on the streets of Al-Fdhiliya in eastern Baghdad. (Reuters)

New Delhi, June 17: India has sought help from Iraq’s military forces to rescue over 100 of its nationals trapped in Mosul and Tikrit, seized by militants from an al Qaida splinter group.

Anil Wadhwa, the secretary (east) at the external affairs ministry, today met Iraq’s ambassador to India, Ahmad Tahseen Ahmad Berwari, to discuss joint evacuation efforts as the US moved warships and firepower close to Iraq.

India has been scrambling to try and rescue at least 44 Indians — many of them nurses — trapped in Tikrit and dozens more estimated in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

But the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has grabbed control of a quarter of the area of Iraq, is engaged in firefights with Iraqi forces on key roads leading up to Baghdad.

“It is impossible for us to evacuate our nationals without cover and assistance from Iraqi forces, and that’s what we’ve requested for,” an Indian official said. “We are still looking at multiple possible strategies but none of them can work without the on-the-ground assistance of Iraq.”

Indian ambassador to Iraq Ajay Kumar had said on Saturday that India is exploring the possibility of evacuating citizens into parts of Kurdistan in north Iraq still controlled by the region’s semi-autonomous government. They can then be flown out either from Kurdistan or through neighbouring Turkey. India has strong diplomatic ties both with Turkey and with the Kurdish government.

On Tuesday, India set up a 24/7 control room at the foreign ministry headquarters in South Block to coordinate evacuation efforts and to collect as well as share information about these efforts.

The embassy in Baghdad on Sunday set up helplines to communicate with trapped nationals.

The control room was set up after foreign minister Sushma Swaraj convened a meeting with senior officials to evaluate possible strategies for evacuating Indian citizens. The embassy in Baghdad has been asked to update the foreign ministry headquarters every hour, officials said.

Several families from Punjab and Kerala have also sought the intervention of the foreign ministry and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy has written to Swaraj, requesting the Centre to launch rescue operations.

India’s acceleration in efforts to rescue citizens trapped in Iraq’s battlezones comes as the US positions key military assets in and around Iraq. At least three ships — including a launch vehicle and a warship — have reached the Persian Gulf, just off the coast of Iraq, the US has confirmed.

The seriousness of the crisis in Iraq can be best gauged from the talks US secretary of state John Kerry has begun with long-time rival Iran in Geneva to collaborate in beating back the offensive from the ISIS, as the advancing terror group is widely referred to.

Indian officials said they agreed with Baghdad’s assessment that external assistance might be needed to tackle the ISIS amid multiple reports of desertions from Iraq’s army.

India, the officials said, also shares global concerns that the spread of the ISIS could lead a coalescing of Syria’s civil war with the one threatening to explode in Iraq.