Swedish Embassy in Baghdad Is Set on Fire


The demonstrators, responding to a protest in Stockholm last month and ahead of one on Thursday, set fire to parts of the building.

Swedish Embassy in Baghdad Is Set on Fire
The demonstrators, angry over Quran burnings in Sweden, protested throughout the night, setting part of the embassy on fire.Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Hundreds of protesters stormed the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad early Thursday and set fire to parts of it ahead of a demonstration outside the Iraqi Embassy in Sweden, where recent Quran burnings have inflamed anger in the Muslim world.

The unrest was the latest ripple from a protest in Stockholm late last month where Salwan Momika, an Iraqi refugee, tore up and burned the Islamic holy book outside the central mosque on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, horrifying Muslims around the world. At the latest demonstration in Sweden on Thursday, Mr. Momika and another protester kicked around copies of the Quran and stomped on a replica of the Iraqi flag.

In response, Iraq’s prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, expelled the Swedish ambassador and directed Iraq’s chargé d’affairs to withdraw from the Iraqi embassy in Sweden, a government spokesman said.

The severing of diplomatic relations came “in response to the repeated permission of the Swedish government to burn the Noble Qur’an, insult Islamic sanctities and burn the Iraqi flag,” Mr. al-Sudani said in a tweet. The Iraqi government also suspended the operating license in the country of the Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson.

Sweden’s foreign minister, Tobias Billström, said in a statement that the country’s embassy in Baghdad had been vandalized and partially burned in the attack at about 2 a.m. local time. Footage shared on social media showed part of the embassy in flames and people with pieces of the building in their hands.

The Iraqi police fired water cannons to disperse the protesters, according to images shared on social media and news reports, and at least 15 protesters were arrested, an Iraqi security official said. A journalism monitoring group said that three photojournalists were also arrested while they were covering the protest and demanded their release.

After the protest, the embassy was closed and all staff members were safe in their residences, an Iraqi foreign ministry official said, adding that no one had been at the embassy at the time of the protest. Mr. Billström confirmed that all staff members were safe. Staff members at the Finnish Embassy, which is nearby, were also evacuated and were safe, according to the Finnish news agency STT.

The Swedish government planned to summon Iraq’s chargé d’affaires in Stockholm to express dismay.

“What has happened is completely unacceptable and the government strongly condemns these attacks,” Mr. Billström said. He said Iraqi authorities had an “unequivocal responsibility” to protect diplomatic staff and had “seriously failed in this responsibility.”

Iraq’s foreign ministry condemned the embassy attack in a statement on Twitter and said the government had instructed the security authorities to conduct an urgent investigation to identify the perpetrators and hold them legally accountable.

Sweden in recent years has struggled with whether to allow protests involving the burning of the Quran, which have heightened diplomatic tensions during its bid to join NATO. Sweden’s foreign ministry called last month’s burning Islamophobic and said it disagreed with it, while officials warned that Quran burnings could affect national security and foreign policy.

While the Swedish authorities have denied several permits for anti-Quran protests before, citing disruptions to public order, courts have overruled those refusals, saying they did not have enough grounds to stop the actions. The Swedish police have said they had charged Mr. Momika with agitation against an ethnic or national group.

With a small crowd of onlookers watching on Thursday, Mr. Momika denounced his critics through a megaphone, telling them to “learn Swedish law” before they spoke against his authorized rally.

“The Muslim countries gathered because some paper was burned. But they never assembled when people were burned there and non-Muslims were killed or forced to emigrate,” he said, adding that he disagreed with Islam’s teachings. “I am not fighting anyone. I am fighting an idea with all means legally available.”

Iraqi security forces trying to disperse protesters outside a section of the Swedish Embassy under construction.
Iraqi riot police officers tried to disperse protesters outside the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad on Thursday, hours after the building was set ablaze.Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In Stockholm in January, Rasmus Paludan, a dual Danish-Swedish national, led a protest in which he set fire to the holy book, angering Turkish officials. Turkey, which had for a time blocked Sweden’s bid to NATO amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, had expressed displeasure at the desecration of the Quran.

Turkey has apparently cleared the way for Sweden to join NATO, though President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the country’s Parliament would make the final decision, and Sweden needed to take more steps to win Turkish support.

The protest overnight in Baghdad was staged at the urging of Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shiite cleric who called for the Iraqi government to break off diplomatic relations with Sweden. He said that the Scandinavian country was “hostile” to Islam.

As part of his protest in Stockholm on Thursday, Mr. Momika also rubbed a photo of Mr. al-Sadr on his feet.

In a statement released on Mr. al-Sadr’s Twitter account, the cleric said Sweden was flouting diplomatic and political norms by allowing the burning of the Quran and the Iraqi flag. If the flag were burned, he wrote, the Iraqi government “should not be content with denunciation, for that indicates weakness and submissiveness.”

Supporters of the influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr protesting outside the embassy last month. Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ali Jaafar Ghailan, a 40-year-old resident of Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, was one of the protesters at the embassy.

“Sweden has allowed the burning of Quran, so we will burn all their interests in Iraq if they repeat their act,” he said. “We, the followers of the Sadrist movement, are determined to put an end to this farce.”

A host of other Muslim countries also condemned last month’s burning of the Quran in Sweden.

Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, said on Twitter earlier this month that while the country had appointed a new ambassador to Sweden, it would refrain sending him in protest over the Quran burning. Morocco summoned Sweden’s representative in its capital, Rabat, and recalled its ambassador in Sweden, according to its state news agency.

Egypt called the burning of the Quran “a disgraceful act,” and Saudi Arabia said that such “hateful and repeated acts cannot be accepted with any justification.” Malaysia’s foreign minister said the desecration of the holy book during an important holiday was “offensive to Muslims worldwide.”

Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Aaron Boxerman from London.


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