ISIS forces Indian nurses out of Tikrit

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Updated: July 4, 2014 03:13 IST

Praveen Swami

They are taken to Mosul, out of reach of Iraqi forces; 5 injured

Fifty-one Indian and Bangladeshi nurses who were moved out of Tikrit hospital at gunpoint on Thursday are believed to be headed towards the Sunni-dominated west bank of Mosul, out of reach of the Iraqi forces, a senior Kurdish military source has told The Hindu .

But in New Delhi, Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said on Thursday the new location of the nurses is unknown. He said some of the nurses may have suffered minor injuries, but dismissed rumours about a bomb blast at the site.

The Kurdish source said the new civilian administration in Mosul, mainly made up of officials who served under ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, is likely to have the custody of the nurses once they reach the city.

“I think it is likely the nurses will be asked to serve at hospitals in Mosul, where there are terrible staff shortages, just as some South Asian workers have been made to build earthworks and fortifications for ISIS. The information we have is that they have been promised payment for the work they do,” the source said.

In Mosul, the nurses will be working for the government of Hashem al-Jamas, a mid-ranking officer in Saddam Hussein’s military, who was appointed Mosul’s governor after his predecessor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, fled in the face of the Islamist takeover last month.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy are in regular touch to monitor the crisis.

The dramatic escalation of the crisis on Thursday is likely to trigger a greater flow of Indians wanting to leave Iraq. Officials in Baghdad told The Hindu that 900 people are set to leave and another 1,500 wish to exit as soon as possible.

‘Nurses were being moved towards Mosul’

The Indian and Bangladeshi nurses holed up in a Tikrit hospital were moved out of the premises in a bus in the face of their protests after several days of Iraqi air and artillery strikes destroyed buildings and cars in the immediate vicinity of the hospital, a senior Kurdish military source told The Hindu.

There has been no cellphone contact with the group since Thursday evening.

A source in a humanitarian organisation told The Hindu that the nurses may have been caught in a crossfire as the Iraqi army, which had earlier lost Tikrit to militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has mounted a riposte to retake the city.

Iraqi forces are also shelling Mosul, but sources in Kerala said before their cellphones were switched off, the nurses had told their compatriots in Iraq that they were being moved in the direction of Iraq’s second largest city.

Kurdish government sources said they would facilitate any effort to move the nurses across the frontline that divides their Peshmerga forces from the ISIS fighters, in the industrial suburbs of Mosul. Hundreds of refugees have been crossing the frontline each day, as fuel, electricity and food supplies run short in Mosul.

However, they said, there was no effective line of communication with the ISIS, which could facilitate such communication. “Things are very fluid,” one official said. “It is not like there is a clear chain of command running things.”

In Mosul, the nurses will be working for the government of Hashem al-Jamas, who is a lieutenant of Izzat al-Douri, Saddam Husain’s former second-in-command, who now heads the Jaysh al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia, an armed group with close links to Iraq’s Sunni tribal leadership and Ba’ath party remnants.

The precise relationship between the ISIS and al-Douri’s forces is unclear. In a June 12 statement, al-Douri said his forces would fight both government forces and Takfiris, a term used to describe jihadists like the ISIS. The ISIS and the Jaysh, however, have been sharing power in Mosul and elsewhere without evident conflict.

 In addition, the ISIS’s fighting force in Mosul, estimated to be around 3,000 by Kurdish military sources, works with elements of the Ansar al-Sunnah and Ansar al-Islam, al-Qaeda-linked groups with a history of hostility to the new jihadist force. However, several mid-level commanders of al-Qaeda have now pledged loyalty to the ISIS chief.

Ousted Mosul governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, who fled the city in the face of the Islamist takeover last month and now living in Erbil under Kurdish protection, has been seeking to build a coalition of Sunni tribal leaders to take on ISIS. He said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government will not be able to build a political coalition and blamed it for “destroying the national identity of the Sunnis.”

Iraqi forces, meanwhile, continued to pound targets in and around Tikrit, but still faced resistance in taking control of the city.

Iraq hopes to stabilise the frontlines guarding approaches to the Shi’a-majority south of the country through Ramadan, before pushing north towards Mosul.

(With additional reporting by Atul Aneja, Suhasini Haidar & Mahim Pratap Singh)

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