BAGHDAD/STOCKHOLM, (Reuters) – Hundreds of protesters stormed the Swedish embassy in central Baghdad early on Thursday, scaling its walls and setting it ablaze in protest against the expected burning of a Koran in Sweden.
Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said embassy staff were safe but that Iraqi authorities had failed in their responsibility to protect the embassy in accordance with 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 our dismay.”
Thursday’s demonstration was called by supporters of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada Sadr to protest the second planned Koran burning in Sweden in weeks, according to posts in a popular Telegram group linked to the influential cleric and other pro-Sadr media.
Sadr, one of Iraq’s most powerful figures, commands hundreds of thousands of followers, whom he has at times called to the streets, including last summer when they occupied Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone and engaged in deadly clashes.
Finnish news agency STT reported that the Finnish embassy, which is in part of the same enclosure as the Swedish, had also been evacuated but that staff were safe and unhurt.
Swedish police on Wednesday granted an application for a public meeting outside the Iraqi embassy in Stockholm on Thursday, the police permit showed, and two people were expected to participate.
Swedish news agency TT reported that the two planned to burn the Koran and the Iraqi flag at the public meeting, and the duo included a man who had set a Koran on fire outside a Stockholm mosque in June.
Swedish police denied several applications earlier this year for protests that were set to include burning the Koran, citing security concerns. Courts have since overturned the police’s decisions, saying such acts are protected by the country’s far-reaching freedom of speech laws.
The Swedish government said this month it is considering changing the law to allow police to stop people from setting the Koran on fire in public if they endangered Sweden’s security.
A series of videos posted to the Telegram group, One Baghdad, showed people gathering around the Swedish embassy around 1 a.m. on Thursday (2200 GMT on Wednesday) chanting pro-Sadr slogans and storming the embassy complex around an hour later.
“Yes, yes to the Koran,” protesters chanted.
Videos later showed smoke rising from a building in the embassy complex and protesters standing on its roof.
Iraq’s foreign ministry also condemned the incident and said in a statement the Iraqi government had instructed security forces to carry out a swift investigation, identify perpetrators and hold them to account.
By dawn on Thursday, security forces had deployed inside the embassy and smoke rose from the building as firefighters extinguished stubborn embers, according to Reuters witnesses.
Iraqi security forces later charged at a few dozen protesters still milling around outside the embassy in an attempt to clear them from the area. Protesters had earlier briefly thrown rocks and projectiles towards the large number of security forces gathered.
Late last month, Sadr called for protests against Sweden and the expulsion of the Swedish ambassador after the Koran burning in Stockholm by an Iraqi man.
After the burning, the man was reported to police for agitation against an ethnic or national group. In a newspaper interview, he described himself as an Iraqi refugee seeking to ban the Koran, the central religious text of Islam, believed by Muslims to be a revelation from God.
Two major protests took place outside of the Swedish embassy in Baghdad in the aftermath of that Koran burning, with protesters breaching the embassy grounds on one occasion.
The governments of several Muslim countries, including Iraq, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Morocco issued protests about the incident, with Iraq seeking the man’s extradition to face trial in the country.
The United States also condemned it, but added that Sweden’s issuing of the permit supported freedom of expression and was not an endorsement of the action.