20 July 2023

Iraq expels Swedish ambassador as protester desecrates Koran in Sweden

20 July 2023

Iraq’s Prime Minister ordered the expulsion of the Swedish ambassador from Iraq and the withdrawal of the Iraqi charge d’affaires from Sweden as a protester desecrated of a copy of the Koran in Stockholm.

The diplomatic flare up came hours after protesters angered by the planned burning of a copy of the Islamic holy book stormed the Swedish embassy in Baghdad early on Thursday, breaking into the compound and lighting a small fire.

Online videos showed demonstrators at the diplomatic post waving flags and signs showing the Iraqi Shiite cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr ahead of the protest in Sweden by an Iraqi asylum-seeker who burned a copy of the Koran in a demonstration last month.

After the incident, the Swedish embassy said it had closed to visitors without specifying when it will reopen.

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

But the statement also said the Iraqi government informed its Swedish counterpart that Iraq would cut off diplomatic relations should the Koran burning happen.

Hours later, Mr Sudani announced the ordered expulsion of the Swedish ambassador.

The announcement came after two men held an anti-Islam protest on grass about 300 feet from the Iraqi embassy in Stockholm.

One of them, identified by Swedish media as Salwan Momika, an Iraqi Christian living in Sweden, stepped on and kicked the Koran but did not set it on fire.

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

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

Following the protest and Mr Sudani’s announcement, the head of Iraq’s Media and Communications Commission said it has suspended the license of Swedish communications company Ericsson to operate in Iraq.

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 engine.

Some demonstrators still stood at the site, holding placards showing Mr al-Sadr’s face, apparently left alone by police.

The Swedish foreign ministry said its staff are safe.

“We condemn all attacks on diplomats and staff from international organisations,” 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.”

We condemn all attacks on diplomats and staff from international organisations

Swedish foreign minister Tobias Billstrom called the attacks “completely unacceptable” in a statement and said the ministry will summon Iraq’s charge d’affaires in Stockholm, criticising 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 the Finnish public broadcaster YLE staff at the Swedish and Finnish embassies were proactively evacuated on 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 police 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 Koran, although Mr Momika said in videos posted on social media 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.

The Iraqi government has instructed the competent security authorities to conduct an urgent investigation and take the necessary security measures in order to uncover the circumstances of the incident and identify the perpetrators of this act and hold them accountable according to the law

However, for Muslims, the burning of the Koran represents a blasphemous desecration of their religion’s holy text.

Koran 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 organisations in the country in response to the recent Koran burning.

Last month, a man identified by local media and on his social media as Mr Momika burned a Koran 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 Mr al-Sadr stormed the embassy in Baghdad during daylight hours over that Koran burning.

Another day of protests saw thousands of demonstrators on the streets in the country.

Protesters then, as well as early on Thursday, called on Iraqi officials to expel Sweden’s ambassador to Iraq.

Mr al-Sadr, the chameleonic son of a prominent Shiite cleric assassinated in a 1999 attack believed to be organised by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, quickly organised Shiites dispossessed under Hussein against the American occupation after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Hussein loyalists and Shiite extremists alike would soon fight an insurgency against the American forces.

Mr al-Sadr’s Mahdi army militia fought American forces throughout much of 2004 in Baghdad and other cities.

His 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.

Mr al-Sadr’s followers have taken part in Iraqi military offensives against the so-called Islamic State group in Tikrit and other cities.

He has organised 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 after a nearly year-long 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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