Fears are held for dozens of Australians still in Iraq as an Islamist terror group waging war in the north draws nearer to Baghdad.
There are 90 Australians registered on the federal government’s Smartraveller service as being in Iraq, despite the official advice that no one travel to the Middle East nation.
But the true figure is likely higher, as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade can only count people who have lodged their details with the government’s travel registry.
There’s no word yet on Australia’s diplomats based in the embassy in Baghdad, or what plans are in place should the situation worsen.
The government has decided that from next year, Australia’s consular staff will move in with their British counterparts in an effort to save money on security.
The government has been trying to boost trade ties with Iraq in recent years through embassy and Austrade officials, and has delivered around $400 million in aid programs over a decade.
Australians also work in agriculture, construction and the resource sector in Iraq, among others areas.
The government has already advised Australians in Mosul, a northern Iraqi city of two million captured by militants, that it can’t help them leave but they should do so immediately if it’s safe.
US companies have begun evacuating hundreds of contractors from northern Iraq as jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, or ISIL, continue their campaign against government forces.
The extremist group seized the major cities of Mosul and Tikrit in a full-blown assault earlier this week, and there are genuine fears they could reach the capital.
ISIL, also known as ISIS, was listed as a terrorist organisation by the government in December, and has been described as one of the world’s most deadly and active terror groups.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said no one should underestimate the threat posed by the group, and the Obama administration was taking it very seriously.
“It would be a very serious and critical development for the world generally if a large chunk of Iraq was to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda type terrorists,” he told reporters in Washington shortly after meeting President Obama in the Oval Office.
When asked if Australia would be involved in any military action, Mr Abbott would not rule it out.
The Australian Greens urged the prime minister to rule out sending troops into Iraq for a third time, saying further conflict wouldn’t fix the problems plaguing the region.
Australia officially ended its six-year military presence in Iraq in 2009, but only withdrew its last two officers in November last year.
By Nick Perry, AAP