BAGHDAD/STOCKHOLM, July 20 (Reuters) – Hundreds of protesters besieged the Swedish embassy in central Baghdad early on Thursday, tearing down its walls and setting it on fire to protest an expected Koran burning in Sweden.
All Baghdad embassy staff are safe, Sweden’s foreign ministry press office said in a statement, condemning the attack and highlighting the need for Iraqi authorities to protect diplomatic missions.
Thursday’s demonstration has been called by supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr to protest a second Koran burning planned in Sweden in a few weeks, with posts on the popular Telegram group linking the influential cleric and other pro-Sadr media outlets.
Sadr, one of Iraq’s most powerful figures, commands hundreds of thousands of followers that he has sometimes called into the streets, including last summer when they occupied Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone and engaged in deadly clashes.
Swedish news agency TT reported Wednesday that Swedish police issued an application for a public meeting outside the Iraqi embassy in Stockholm on Thursday.
The application states that the applicant seeks to burn the Koran and the Iraqi flag, TT reported.
A series of videos posted on the Telegram group One Baghdad showed people gathering around the embassy around 1 a.m. Thursday (2200 GMT Wednesday) chanting pro-Sadr slogans and storming the embassy compound an hour later.
“Yes, yes to the Koran,” protesters chanted.
Videos later showed smoke billowing from a building in the embassy compound and protesters standing on its roof. Reuters could not independently verify the authenticity of the videos.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry also condemned the incident and said in a statement that the Iraqi government had ordered security forces to conduct a swift investigation and identify the perpetrators and hold them accountable.
By dawn on Thursday, security forces were stationed inside the embassy and smoke billowed from the building as firefighters extinguished stubborn flames, according to Reuters witnesses.
Most of the protesters withdrew, with a few dozen gathering outside the embassy.
Late last month, Sadr called for protests against Sweden and the expulsion of the Swedish ambassador after an Iraqi man burned a Koran in Stockholm.
Swedish police have charged the man with sedition against an ethnic or national group. In a newspaper interview, he described himself as an Iraqi refugee seeking to ban Islam’s central religious text, the Koran, which Muslims believe was revealed by God.
Two large protests took place outside the Swedish embassy in Baghdad after the Koran burning, with protesters on one occasion breaking into the embassy compound.
The governments of several Muslim countries, including Iraq, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Morocco, issued protests over the incident and demanded that the man be extradited to Iraq to face trial.
The United States also condemned it, but Sweden granted the permit, saying it supported freedom of expression and did not condone the action.
Report by Taimur Azhari; Additional reporting by Anna Ringström in Stockholm; By Timur Azhari; Editing by Tom Hogue and Lincoln Feist
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