Iraq expels Sweden ambassador after Swedish Embassy in Baghdad attacked


BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister said Thursday that he was expelling the Swedish ambassador after that country’s government allowed a protest in Stockholm in which a copy of the Quran was desecrated.

The order came after hundreds of young men, many of them supporters of the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, stormed the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad in the early hours Thursday for the second time in the past few weeks, setting fire to a portion of the entrance hall and inflaming a growing political crisis.

While condemning the assault on the embassy, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani said the ambassador had been asked to leave Iraqi territory and that Iraq’s chief diplomat in Sweden was vacating the embassy in Stockholm. The Communications Ministry said that work at Ericsson, one of Sweden’s largest companies, also would be suspended in Iraq.

The prime minister’s response, and apparent inability to defend the Swedish mission, was a reminder of the weakness of his government — which is seeking more foreign investment to support a troubled economy — in the face of a populist leader like Sadr, who can easily mobilize his followers and militia loyalists.

Iraqi cleric orders supporters to retreat after clashes kill dozens

An Iraqi asylum-seeker in Sweden, Salwan Momika, sent ripples of anger through parts of the Muslim world June 28 when he tore up and burned a copy of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, outside a mosque in central Stockholm during Eid al-Adha, the most important Islamic holiday of the year.

The act drew condemnation from Turkey, a NATO power that had opposed Sweden’s accession to the geopolitical alliance. In Iraq, it presented a politically astute Sadr with an opportunity to rally his deeply loyal base ahead of elections at the end of the year, experts said.

On June 29, hundreds of Sadr’s supporters gathered outside the Swedish Embassy in a show of strength that ended hours later when the cleric called on them to return home.

“The Sadrists have an interest in mobilizing the base, testing loyalty and discipline, prepping the base organizationally and trying to put themselves back at the center of what’s going on politically,” said Ben Robin-D’Cruz, an analyst on Iraq whose research focuses on the country’s protest politics and Shiite Islamist movements.

Throughout the two decades since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq overthrew President Saddam Hussein, Sadr has been something of a political shape-shifter, positioning himself variously as a sectarian militia leader, a revolutionary figure and a nationalist who could unify the country. And he has repeatedly shown that he can upend the political game.

Although his political bloc won the most seats in Iraq’s 2021 elections, it later withdrew altogether from a deadlocked political process, leaving an Iran-linked alliance to take the lead in tackling the country’s entrenched corruption and buckling electricity, water and education services.

Out of government, Sadr has repeatedly directed his followers to start street protests over cultural or religious issues, keeping his working-class and religiously conservative adherents fired up.

Thursday’s attack on the Swedish Embassy came after news broke that Stockholm had granted a permit for another demonstration by Momika, a Christian, this time outside the Iraqi Embassy, and with the stated intent of again publicly damaging a Quran.

Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Tobias Billstrom said that protesters vandalized and torched the embassy building around 2 a.m. — before the planned protest in Sweden had taken place. “Fortunately, the staff at the Swedish Embassy were able to move to safety,” he said.

The U.S. State Department condemned the attack on the Swedish Embassy and the response of Iraq’s security forces as it unfolded.

“It is unacceptable that Iraqi Security Forces did not act to prevent protesters from breaching the Swedish Embassy compound for a second time and damaging it,” a spokesman said in a statement. The Committee to Protect Journalists said that it had received reports that photographers working to document the attack were obstructed, beaten and detained by Iraqi authorities.

The State Department and European Union called on Iraq’s government to prevent attacks on diplomatic facilities, in line with international law.

But the crisis only deepened throughout the day. After Momika’s protest in Sweden, Sudani’s government announced that the Swedish ambassador would be expelled and that Iraq’s chargé d’affaires in Sweden was being recalled.

In Baghdad, Sadr’s supporters gathered in the central Tahrir Square awaiting a promised address by their leader as some scrawled graffiti on the outside walls of Swedish-linked businesses. “Closed by the order of Mohammed al-Sadr’s sons,” read one.

The United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution earlier this month introduced by Pakistan on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It called for the publication of a report on religious hatred and for states to amend laws that may “impede the prevention and prosecution of acts and advocacy of religious hatred.”

But its passage was strongly opposed by the United States and European Union, who say it conflicts with their view of human rights and freedom of expression. In Sadr’s televised speech, he said that America had no right to condemn the torching of the Swedish Embassy, given that it had not commented on the desecration of the Quran in the same statement.

“I call on the world’s countries to enact a law that criminalizes Quran-burning and deems it a terrorist act,” he said.

The flare-up risked causing substantial damage to Iraq’s efforts to take advantage of a period of relative stability to attract international investments, experts said.

However, said Robin-D’Cruz, the analyst, “from Sadr’s perspective, this likely achieves a key objective: to prove that he cannot be ignored or marginalized, and if he is not cut into political deals on a favorable basis, he can cause chaos.”

Loveluck reported from London.

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