Supporters of Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gather for a protest outside the Swedish embassy in Baghdad on July 20, 2023.
Ahmad al-Rabi’i AFP | Getty Images
Hundreds of protesters stormed the Swedish embassy in central Baghdad on Thursday morning, breaking down its walls and setting it on fire, in protest against the alleged burning of the Koran in Sweden.
Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Bluström said the embassy staff was safe, but the Iraqi authorities had failed in their responsibility to protect the embassy under 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 its disappointment.”
Thursday’s demonstration was called by supporters of Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr to protest the second planned Koran burning in Sweden in weeks.
The president, one of Iraq’s most powerful figures, commands millions of followers, whom he has sometimes called to the streets, including last summer when he seized Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone and engaged in deadly clashes.
Finnish news agency STT reported that the Finnish embassy, which is part of the same wall as the Swedish one, was also evacuated but staff were safe and sound.
Swedish police on Wednesday approved a request for a public meeting outside the Iraqi embassy in Stockholm on Thursday, appearing with police permission, and expected to be attended by two people.
Swedish news agency TT reported that the two planned to burn the Koran and the Iraqi flag at the rally, and that the two were among the men who burned the Koran outside a Stockholm mosque in June.
Swedish police earlier this year rejected several requests for Koran-burning demonstrations, citing security concerns. Courts have since struck down the police’s decisions, saying such actions are protected by the country’s far-reaching freedom of expression laws.
Sweden’s government said this month it was considering changing the law to allow police to stop people from setting Korans on fire if they threatened Sweden’s security.
A series of videos posted on the Telegram group, One Baghdad, showed people gathering around the Swedish embassy around 1 a.m. Thursday (2200 GMT Wednesday) chanting slogans in favor of the president and storming the embassy compound about an hour later.
“Yes, yes to the Koran,” the protesters chanted.
Later videos showed smoke rising from the building of the embassy compound and protesters standing on its roof.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry also condemned the incident and said in a statement that the Iraqi government has instructed security forces to immediately investigate, identify and hold the perpetrators accountable.
By Thursday morning, security forces were deployed inside the embassy and smoke was billowing from the building as firefighters extinguished stubborn embers, according to Reuters witnesses.
Iraqi security forces later charged a few dozen protesters who were still holed up outside the embassy to clear the area. Earlier, the protesters briefly pelted stones and shells at the security forces who had gathered in large numbers.
Late last month, the president called for Sweden’s ambassador to be expelled after anti-Sweden protests and the burning of a Koran by an Iraqi man in Stockholm.
After the burning, the person was reported to the police for protesting against an ethnic or national group. In a newspaper interview, he described himself as an Iraqi refugee who was trying to ban Islam’s central religious text, the Koran, which Muslims believe is a revelation from God.
The burning of the Koran was followed by two large demonstrations outside the Swedish embassy in Baghdad, with protesters trespassing on embassy grounds at one point.
The governments of several Muslim countries, including Iraq, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Morocco, issued protests over the incident, with Iraq demanding the man’s extradition to face trial in the country.
The US also condemned it, but added that Sweden’s issuance of the permit supports freedom of expression and is not an endorsement of the action.