Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather for a protest outside the Swedish embassy in Baghdad on July 20, 2023.
Ahmad Al Rubaye | Afp | fake images
Hundreds of protesters stormed the Swedish embassy in central Baghdad on Thursday morning, scaling its walls and setting fire to it in protest against the expected burning of a Koran in Sweden.
Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said the embassy staff were safe but the Iraqi authorities had failed in their responsibility to protect the embassy in accordance with the Vienna Convention.
“What has happened is completely unacceptable and the government strongly condemns these attacks,” he said in a statement. “The government is in contact with high-level Iraqi representatives to express our dismay.”
Thursday’s rally was called by supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr to protest Sweden’s second planned Koran burning in weeks, according to posts on a popular Telegram group linked to the influential cleric and other pro-Sadr outlets.
Sadr, one of Iraq’s most powerful figures, commands hundreds of thousands of supporters, whom he has called to the streets at times, including last summer when they occupied Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone and engaged in deadly clashes.
Finnish news agency STT reported that the Finnish embassy, which is located in part of the same compound as the Swedish one, had also been evacuated but that the staff were safe and unharmed.
Swedish police on Wednesday approved a request for a public meeting outside the Iraqi embassy in Stockholm on Thursday, the police permit showed, with two people expected to participate.
Swedish news agency TT reported that the two planned to burn the Quran and the Iraqi flag at the public meeting, and the duo included a man who had set a Quran on fire outside a Stockholm mosque in June.
Swedish police turned down several requests earlier this year for protests that were to include the burning of the Koran, citing security concerns. Courts have since reversed the police decisions, saying such acts are protected by the country’s far-reaching free speech laws.
The Swedish government said this month that it is considering changing the law to allow police to stop people from burning the Koran in public if they endanger Sweden’s security.
A series of videos posted to the One Baghdad Telegram group showed people gathered around the Swedish embassy around 1 a.m. Thursday (2200 GMT Wednesday) chanting pro-Sadr slogans and storming the embassy compound about an hour later.
“Yes, yes to the Koran,” the protesters chanted.
Subsequent videos showed smoke billowing from a building in the embassy complex and protesters standing on its roof.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry also condemned the incident, saying in a statement that the Iraqi government had instructed security forces to carry out a prompt investigation, identify the perpetrators and hold them to account.
By dawn on Thursday, security forces had been deployed inside the embassy and smoke was billowing from the building as firefighters extinguished unruly embers, according to Reuters witnesses.
Iraqi security forces later charged a few dozen protesters still milling in front of the embassy in an attempt to evict them from the area. Earlier, protesters had briefly hurled stones and projectiles at the large number of assembled security forces.
Late last month, Sadr called for protests against Sweden and the expulsion of the Swedish ambassador after an Iraqi burned the Koran in Stockholm.
After the burning, the man was reported to the police for agitation against an ethnic or national group. In a newspaper interview, he described himself as an Iraqi refugee seeking to ban the Koran, Islam’s central religious text, which Muslims believe is a revelation from God.
Two large protests took place outside the Swedish embassy in Baghdad after the Quran burning, with protesters storming the embassy grounds on one occasion.
The governments of several Muslim countries, including Iraq, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Morocco, have issued protests over the incident, and Iraq is seeking the man’s extradition to stand trial in the country.
The United States also condemned it, but added that Sweden’s issuance of the permit supported free speech and did not endorse the action.