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Protesters try to storm Baghdad's Green Zone over Quran and flag burning in Denmark

Protesters gather in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, carrying Iraqi flags and images of influential Iraqi Shiite cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr, on Saturday following reports of the burning of a Quran carried out by a ultranationalist group in front of the Iraqi Embassy in Copenhagen.
Ali Jabar
/
AP
Protesters gather in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, carrying Iraqi flags and images of influential Iraqi Shiite cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr, on Saturday following reports of the burning of a Quran carried out by a ultranationalist group in front of the Iraqi Embassy in Copenhagen.

Updated July 22, 2023 at 9:46 AM ET

BAGHDAD — Tensions flared again in Iraq Saturday over a series of recent protests in Europe involving desecration of the Quran, Islam's holy book, which have sparked a debate over the balance between freedom of speech and religious sensitivities.

Hundreds of protesters attempted to storm Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses foreign embassies and the seat of Iraq's government, early Saturday following reports that an ultranationalist group burned a copy of the Quran in front of the Iraqi Embassy in the Danish capital, Copenhagen.

The protest came two days after people angered by the planned burning of the Islamic holy book in Sweden stormed the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad.

Security forces on Saturday pushed back protesters, who blocked the Jumhuriya bridge leading to the Green Zone, preventing them from reaching the Danish Embassy.

Elsewhere in Iraq, protesters burned three caravans belonging to a demining project run by the the Danish Refugee Council, or DRC, in the city of Basra in the south, local police said in a statement. The fire was extinguished by civil defense responders, and there were "no human casualties, only material losses," the statement said.

The DRC confirmed in an emailed statement to The Associated Press that its premises in Basra "came under armed attack" early Saturday.

"We deplore this attack – aid workers should never be a target of violence," Lilu Thapa, DRC's executive director for the Middle East said.

Iraq's prime minister has cut diplomatic ties with Sweden in protest over the desecration of the Quran in that country.

An Iraqi asylum-seeker who burned a copy of the Quran during a demonstration last month in Stockholm had threatened to do the same thing again Thursday but ultimately stopped short of setting fire to the book. He did, however, kick and step on it, and did the same with an Iraqi flag and a photo of influential Iraqi Shiite cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr and of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The right to hold public demonstrations is protected by the constitution in Sweden, and blasphemy laws were abandoned in the 1970s. Police generally give permission based on whether they believe a public gathering can be held without major disruptions or safety risks.

On Friday afternoon, thousands protested peacefully in Iraq and other Muslim-majority countries.

In the incident in Copenhagen, according to Danish media reports, members of the ultranationalist group Danske Patrioter burned a copy of the Quran and an Iraqi flag in front of the Iraqi Embassy, livestreaming the action on Facebook.

Copenhagen police spokeswoman Trine Fisker told The Associated Press that "a very small demonstration" with fewer than 10 people took place Friday afternoon across the street from the Iraqi Embassy and that a book was burned.

"We do not know what book it was," she said. "Apparently they tried to burn the Iraqi flag and after that, somebody stepped on it."

Fisker said the "political angle is not for the police to comment" on, but the "event was peaceful ... from a police perspective."

The Danish government on Saturday condemned the demonstration. Foreign Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen called the action "stupidity that a small handful of individuals did."

"It is a shameful act to violate the religion of others," he told Danish public broadcaster DR. "This applies both to the burning of Qurans and other religious symbols. It has no other purpose than to provoke and create division."

The incident prompted the protests in Baghdad overnight. Chanting in support of Sadr and carrying images of the prominent leader and the flag associated with his movement, along with the Iraqi flag, hundreds of protesters attempted to enter the Green Zone and clashed with security forces before dispersing.

In a statement on Saturday, the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned "in strong and repeated terms, the incident of abuse against the Holy Quran and the flag of the Republic of Iraq in front of the Iraqi Embassy in Denmark."

It called the international community "to stand urgently and responsibly towards these atrocities that violate social peace and coexistence around the world." the statement read.

Another protest is scheduled to take place in Baghdad at 6 p.m.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press