Iraq orders expulsion of Swedish ambassador over Quran controversy


BAGHDAD — Iraq’s prime minister said Thursday that he was expelling the Swedish ambassador after a protest was allowed to take place 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 of 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, while Iraq’s chief diplomat in Sweden was ordered to vacate the embassy in Stockholm. The Communications Ministry said that the work of Ericsson, one of Sweden’s largest companies, also would be suspended in Iraq.

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

Iraqi cleric orders supporters to retreat after clashes kill dozens

An Iraqi asylum seeker in Sweden, Salwan Momika, first 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 swift condemnation from Turkey, a NATO power that previously has opposed Sweden’s accession to the geopolitical alliance, while 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 Iraq analyst whose research focuses on Shiite Islamist movements and Iraq’s protest politics.

Throughout the two decades since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq overthrew President Saddam Hussein, Sadr has been something of a political shapeshifter, 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, he has repeatedly directed his followers into street protests over cultural or religious issues, keeping his working-class and religiously conservative followers fired up.

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

Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Tobias Billstrom said that protesters vandalized and torched the embassy building around 2 a.m. — even 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.

“We call on the Government of Iraq to honor its international obligations to protect all diplomatic missions in Iraq against any intrusion or damage, as required by international law,” the State Department said.

But the crisis only deepened throughout the day. After Momika’s protest took place 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 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, from Sadr’s perspective, this likely achieves a key objective,” said Robin-D’Cruz, the analyst. “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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