Anticipating a possible war, Moscow advised more than 700 state and private workers from Russia to leave Iraq, and the first plane sent by the Russian government carried 150 of them home Thursday.
Russia organized the operation -- which officials termed "a planned withdrawal" rather than an evacuation -- to ferry out Russian diplomats, business and trade representatives, engineers and oil and energy workers. In most cases, their families had already left the country in recent weeks. The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry, which provided the Ilyushin-62 plane, plans to keep running the shuttles to Moscow for three more days.
The withdrawal is voluntary, said Alexander Galadzhev, spokesman for the Russian Embassy here. But most Russians in Iraq are expected to heed the advice to leave the country.
The sensitivity of the departure for Baghdad was reflected in the Iraqi Information Ministry's decision to forbid photographing of the Russians before they left. The Russian move follows a reduction of staff in most embassies in recent weeks. Even some of the British "human shields" -- Western activists who had planned to stay in Iraq to discourage a U.S. and British attack on the country -- have opted to go home in recent days.
Iraqis who were told about the Russians' departure said it was a bad sign.
"It is a pity they go," said businessman Mahmud Samorai, 52. "Well, we have nowhere to go. We will stay here and fight alone."
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, addressing his Cabinet on Thursday, also spoke of coming war and vowed that Iraq would fight back ferociously.
"If the American administration goes ahead and attacks Iraq, it will be committing an act of absolute foolishness," Hussein said, according to the Iraqi News Agency.
Russia, Iraq's biggest foreign trade partner, is responsible for several huge construction and energy projects in the country. Its oil companies are drilling for oil in northern Iraq and waiting for international sanctions to be lifted so they can begin pumping. Russia also is building two grain elevators in the south of Iraq.
But the biggest project by far, started in 1988 and interrupted for nine years after 1991, is the Yusifiya power plant 36 miles south of Baghdad. The project employs 438 foreign specialists mainly from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. But the Russian state-owned general contractor, Technopromexport, has ordered them to leave.
More than 130 of the 150 passengers Thursday were from the Yusifiya project. They sat gloomily in the darkened hallway of Saddam International Airport, contemplating the loss of their healthy expatriate salaries and the possibility of unemployment back home, and scolded President Bush and the Russian government for their plight.
"Bush gave me a really weird birthday present," said Vladislav Sarantsev, a Yusifiya project veteran who turns 65 today. "Daddy Bush stopped me from finishing my project in 1991. Now Sonny Bush interrupts me a second time."
The first section of the plant had been scheduled to go online in September, but now the workers are not sure.
"They told us that we are getting a leave," said Nikolai Shubayev, 53, a crane operator. "Now I don't know how long this leave is going to last, who will pay for it, whether I am ever coming back here and what I am going to do with my life now."
The workers, who are used to getting from $600 to $1,000 a month in Yusifiya, are afraid that uncertainty and no real job prospects are in store for them back home. And many said the upcoming war is unjust and unfair to Iraqis.
"You cannot just tread upon other countries because you don't think they are democratic enough," said Gennady Kolesnikov, 49, a welding foreman. "They elected their president. They like him. Even in [the] absence of official translators, these simple Iraqi peasants and workers never say a bad word about him. They want to live with him, and it is their business."
Kolesnikov predicted that the Americans will quickly destroy all the military and strategic infrastructure but then will get drawn into a long guerrilla war.
"Farmers are very simple and straightforward people -- they are not like townsfolk," he said. "They all have as many Kalashnikovs in their homes as we have bread knives. They don't have much to lose. They will fight fanatically."
Loiko is a special correspondent and Daniszewski a Times staff writer.