22 July 2023

Protesters try to storm Baghdad’s Green Zone over burning of Koran in Denmark

22 July 2023

Hundreds of protesters have attempted to storm Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses foreign embassies and the seat of Iraq’s government, following reports of the burning of a Koran carried out by a ultra-nationalist group in Copenhagen.

They were pushed back by security forces, who blocked the Jumhuriya bridge leading to the Green Zone, preventing them from reaching the Danish embassy.

The protest came two days after people angered by the planned burning of the Islamic holy book in Sweden stormed the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad.

Protesters occupied the diplomatic post for several hours, waving flags and signs showing the influential Iraqi Shia cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr, and setting a small fire. The embassy staff had been evacuated a day earlier.

Elsewhere in Iraq, protesters burned three caravans belonging to a de-mining project run by the the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in the city of Basra, local police said in a statement.

The fire was extinguished by civil defence responders, and there were “no human casualties, only material losses,” the statement said.

The DRC confirmed in an emailed statement to The Associated Press that its premises in Basra “came under armed attack” early on Saturday.

Lilu Thapa, DRC’s executive director for the Middle East said: “We deplore this attack – aid workers should never be a target of violence.”

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

An Iraqi asylum-seeker who burned a copy of the Koran during a demonstration last month in Stockholm had threatened to do the same thing again on Thursday but ultimately stopped short of setting fire to the book.

He did, however, kick and step on it, and did the same with an Iraqi flag and a photo of Mr al-Sadr and of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

On Friday afternoon, thousands protested peacefully in Iraq and other Muslim-majority countries.

In Iran, semi-official Tasnim news agency reported that the powerful Revolutionary Guard’s chief, General Hossein Salami, said that “we do not allow those who insult the Quran to be safe”.

Muslims “will decree a severe punishment for the perpetrators of these crimes,” he added.

Also on Friday, according to Danish media reports, members of ultra-nationalist group Danske Patrioter burned a copy of the Koran and an Iraqi flag in front of the Iraqi embassy in Copenhagen and livestreamed the action on Facebook.

The Danish government condemned the demonstration.

Foreign Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen called the action “stupidity that a small handful of individuals did”.

Mr Rasmussen told Danish public broadcaster DR: “It is a shameful act to violate the religion of others.

“This applies both to the burning of Korans and other religious symbols. It has no other purpose than to provoke and create division.”

The incident prompted the protests in Baghdad overnight. Chanting in support of Mr al-Sadr and carrying images of the prominent leader and the flag associated with his movement, along with the Iraqi flag, hundreds of protesters attempted to enter the Green Zone and clashed with security forces before dispersing.

In a statement on Saturday, the Iraqi ministry of foreign affairs condemned “in strong and repeated terms, the incident of abuse against the Holy Koran and the flag of the Republic of Iraq in front of the Iraqi embassy in Denmark”.

It called the international community “to stand urgently and responsibly towards these atrocities that violate social peace and co-existence around the world”.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani criticised the desecration of the Koran in Denmark and said the Danish government should be held responsible for preventing such acts and should pursue and punish those behind them, the ministry’s website said.

The ministry also summoned the Danish ambassador, Jesper Vahr, to Tehran, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

The report said that Mr Vahr was told Iran believes that if the Danish government had acted effectively, “we would not have witnessed such a blasphemous act today”.

On Saturday evening, more than a thousand protesters gathered again in central Baghdad but did not immediately attempt to storm the Green Zone for a second time.

They burned Swedish and LGBTQ+ flags and chanted against the United States, Israel, Sweden and Denmark, before dispersing peacefully after a couple of hours.

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