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Iraq, Sweden in diplomatic clash after man desecrates the Quran

Protesters storm Swedish embassy in Baghdad in anticipation of book-buring in Stockholm
FILE - Supporters of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr raise the Quran, the Muslims’ holy book, during a demonstration in front of the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad, on June 30, 2023, in response to the burning of Quran in Sweden. Protesters angered by the burning of a copy of the Quran stormed the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad early Thursday, July 20, 2023, online videos purported to show. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)

Protesters angered by the planned burning of a copy of the Quran by an Iraqi man in Sweden stormed the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad, overrunning the diplomatic compound and starting a fire Thursday.

Hours later, Iraq’s prime minister cut diplomatic ties with Sweden in protest over the desecration of the Islamic holy book.

Protesters stormed the diplomatic post early Thursday, waving flags and signs showing the influential Iraqi Shiite cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr, and set a small fire. The attack on the embassy came ahead of a planned burning of the Quran in Stockholm by an Iraqi asylum-seeker who burned a copy of the Islamic holy book during a previous demonstration last month.

Following the incident, the Swedish Embassy announced it had closed to visitors, without specifying when it would reopen.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani said in a statement after meeting with security officials that Iraqi authorities would prosecute those responsible for the arson as well as referring “negligent security officials” for investigation.

However, the statement also said that the Iraqi government had informed its Swedish counterpart on Wednesday that Iraq would cut off diplomatic relations should the Quran burning go forward.

Hours later, Sudani announced he had ordered the expulsion of the Swedish ambassador from Iraq and the withdrawal of the Iraqi charge d’affaires from Sweden.

The announcement came after two men held an anti-Islam protest on a lawn about 100 meters (300 feet) from the Iraqi Embassy in Stockholm. One of them, identified by Swedish media as Salwan Momika, an Iraqi of Christian origin who lives in Sweden as a self-identified atheist, stepped on and kicked the Quran, but didn’t set it on fire.

Momika also stepped on and kicked an Iraqi flag, as well as photographs of al-Sadr and of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

About 50 people, including journalists and a handful of counter-demonstrators chanting religious slogans, watched the demonstration from behind police barricades as plainclothes and uniformed officers stood by.

Following the protest and Sudani’s announcement, the head of Iraq’s Media and Communications Commission announced it had suspended the license of Swedish communications company Ericsson to operate in Iraq. The Ministry of Communications later said it would sever all its dealings with Swedish companies.

Before the planned protest in Stockholm, dozens of men climbed over the fence at the complex containing the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad. Video footage showed men trying to break down a door, setting a fire and standing, some shirtless in the summer heat, inside what appeared to be a room at the embassy, an alarm audible in the background.

Others later performed predawn prayers outside of the embassy.

As dawn broke, police and other security officials gathered at the embassy as firefighters tried to douse the flames from the ladder of a fire truck. Some demonstrators still stood at the site, holding placards showing Sadr’s face, apparently left alone by police.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry said in a statement that its staff were safe.

“We condemn all attacks on diplomats and staff from international organizations,” the ministry said. “Attacks on embassies and diplomats constitute a serious violation of the Vienna Convention. Iraqi authorities have the responsibility to protect diplomatic missions and diplomatic staff.”

Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström called the attacks “completely unacceptable” and said the ministry would summon Iraq’s charge d’affaires in Stockholm. In a statement, Billström slammed Iraqi authorities for “seriously failing” in their responsibility to protect the embassy and its personnel.

The Finnish Embassy in Baghdad is adjacent to the Swedish Embassy, in an area enclosed by blast walls. Finland’s ambassador to Iraq, Matti Lassila, told Finnish public broadcaster YLE that the staffs of both embassies were proactively evacuated Wednesday and were uninjured.

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry also issued a statement condemning the attack and promising to hold the perpetrators accountable, without explaining how it allowed the breach to happen or identifying who carried out the assault.

Stockholm police spokesman Mats Eriksson confirmed that police had granted permission for a demonstration involving two people outside the Iraqi Embassy in Stockholm on Thursday. He could not say whether the protesters were planning to burn the Quran, although Momika had announced in videos posted on social media that they planned to do so.

The right to hold public demonstrations is strong in Sweden and protected by the constitution. Blasphemy laws were abandoned in the 1970s. Police generally give permission based on whether they believe a public gathering can be held without major disruptions or risks to public safety.

However, for Muslims, the burning of the Quran represents a blasphemous desecration of their religion’s holy text. Quran burnings in the past have sparked protests across the Muslim world, some turning violent. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have suspended all the activities of Swedish organizations in the country in response to the recent Quran burning.

Last month, a man identified by local media and on his social media as Momika burned a Quran outside a Stockholm mosque during the major Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, triggering widespread condemnation in the Islamic world.

A similar protest by a far-right activist was held outside Turkey’s Embassy earlier this year, complicating Sweden’s efforts to convince Turkey to let it join NATO.

In June, protesters who support al-Sadr stormed the embassy in Baghdad during daylight hours over that Quran burning. Another day of protests saw thousands of demonstrators on the streets in the country. Protesters then, as well as early Thursday, called on Iraqi officials to expel Sweden’s ambassador to Iraq.

Al-Sadr, the son of a prominent Shiite cleric assassinated in a 1999 attack believed to be organized by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, quickly organized Shiite dispossessed under Saddam against the American occupation after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Saddam loyalists and Shiite extremists alike would soon fight an insurgency against the American forces. Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia fought American forces throughout much of 2004 in Baghdad and other cities. Al-Sadr’s forces are believed to have later taken part in the sectarian killings between Shiites and Sunnis that plagued Iraq for several years after the bombing of one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.

Since that time, much has changed.

Al-Sadr’s followers have taken part in Iraqi military offensives against the Islamic State group in Tikrit and other cities. He has organized rallies against government corruption, including breaching the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, the highly secure area housing government offices and many foreign embassies.

He claimed he would bow out of politics last August, following a nearly yearlong deadlock in the formation of a new Cabinet. His party won the largest share of seats in the October 2021 parliamentary elections, but not enough to secure a majority government.

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