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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Mitchell Prothero, McClatchy Foreign Staff

IRBIL, Iraq — Skirmishes over Iraq’s largest oil refinery left part of the facility ablaze Wednesday as Islamic militants battled Iraqi security forces for control.

Iraqi state television reported that security forces remained in control of the refinery and electric-generation plants in Baiji, just north of the rebel-held city of Tikrit. But witnesses contacted by independent Iraqi media outlets reported that fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and their Sunni Muslim tribal allies had taken over at least portions of the facility and sent home the workers trapped inside.

Black plumes of smoke could be seen from at least a dozen burning storage tanks on local television stations as much of Iraq went into a panic over the possibility of a sustained gasoline shortage in a country already forced to import more than 100,000 barrels of gasoline a day because of high demand and crumbling infrastructure.

In addition to Tuesday’s announcement that the government had shut off the oil supply to the facility — either to stop the output from falling into ISIS’ hands or to prevent the facility from exploding amid the fighting — the German firm Siemens and the security company Olive said they’d cleared dozens of foreign workers and security guards from the complex, which has been surrounded by militants since much of northern Iraq fell in last week’s surprise takeover. The government, however, denied that foreign workers had left.

Government helicopters reportedly struck either the facility itself or rebel positions close by and, according to some witnesses talking to local media, caused the fires.

One executive with a Western oil-services company that’s working in Irbil — who spoke only on the condition of anonymity so as not to annoy the Iraqi government, which he does business with — said control of the facility appeared to be split between militants and an army unit that had been sneaked into the area recently to reinforce the beleaguered security guards usually assigned to protect it.

“We don’t exactly know, because Baghdad has lost all credibility with the oil industry this week,” the executive said. “They keep announcing things they wish were true instead of giving us the information we need to make proper decisions.”

He added: ‘This does not inspire confidence in their competence or their handle on events on the ground.”

Little in the performance of the Iraqi government has inspired much confidence of late, as tens of thousands of soldiers and police officers deserted their posts and fled the battlefield when ISIS — which previously had controlled large chunks of eastern Syria and the western Iraq province of Anbar — suddenly materialized in force on June 9. Within 24 hours, ISIS had overrun the northern city of Mosul, the country’s second largest, capturing huge amounts of military hardware and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars from banks.

Within days, the group’s militants had reached the northernmost edges of Baghdad’s suburbs, backed by what appears to be a broad Sunni rebellion against the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who’s been widely accused at home and abroad of fostering unrest with sectarian political policies.

In Irbil — which remains quiet and under the control of the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government despite a local gasoline refinery remaining online — the loss of the highway from Turkey through Mosul, on top of the loss of the Baiji facility, caused a mild panic. Motorists faced long lines and severe limits on gasoline purchases.

But the oil industry executive said an impending shortage was, at least so far, unlikely to be truly disruptive.

“It’s a lot longer trip now (avoiding Mosul), but the Turks want to make money and can send it by land,” he said. “This seems a combination of both prudent rationing and psychological panic as people realize the conflict isn’t going away.”

Ahmad Al-Rubaye via Flickr

Many Democrats are getting nervous about the upcoming presidential election. Ominous, extensively reported articles by two of the best in the business—the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin and The Atlantic's Barton Gellman—outline Boss Trump's plot to keep control of the White House in 2021 no matter how the American people vote.
Trump is hardly making a secret of it. He's pointedly refused to commit to "a peaceful transfer of power."

"Well, we're going to have to see what happens," is how he answered the question. He added that after we "get rid of the ballots"—presumably mail-in ballots he's been whining about for weeks--"there won't be a transfer, frankly. There'll be a continuation."

Of course, Trump himself has always voted by mail, but then brazen hypocrisy is his standard operating mode. If you haven't noticed, he also lies a lot. Without prevaricating, boasting, and bitching, he'd be mute. And even then, he'd still have Twitter. He recently tweeted that the winner "may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED" because mail-in ballots make it a "RIGGED ELECTION in waiting."
Gellman gets this part exactly right in The Atlantic: "Let us not hedge about one thing. Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. Not during the Interregnum and not afterward. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.
"Trump's invincible commitment to this stance will be the most important fact about the coming Interregnum. It will deform the proceedings from beginning to end. We have not experienced anything like it before."
No, we haven't. However, it's important to remember that Trump makes threats and promises almost daily that never happen. Remember that gigantic border wall Mexico was going to pay for? Trump has built exactly five miles of the fool thing, leaving roughly two thousand to go.
His brilliant cheaper, better health care plan? Non-existent.
On Labor Day, Boss Trump boasted of his unparalleled success in strong-arming Japan into building new auto-manufacturing plants. "They're being built in Ohio, they're being built in South Carolina, North Carolina, they're being built all over and expanded at a level that we've never seen before."
Not a word of that is true. Two new plants, one German, another Swedish have opened in South Carolina, but construction began before Trump took office. Auto industry investment during Barack Obama's second term far exceeded Trump's. His version is sheer make-believe.
But back to the GOP scheme to steal the election.
First, it's clear that even Trump understands that he has virtually no chance of winning the national popular vote. He's been polling in the low 40s, with no sign of change. To have any chance of prevailing in the Electoral College, he's got to do the electoral equivalent of drawing to an inside straight all over again—winning a half-dozen so-called battleground states where he defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 by the narrowest of margins.
At this writing, that looks highly unlikely. The latest polling in must-win Pennsylvania, for example, shows Trump trailing Joe Biden by nine points. That's a landslide. Trump's down ten in Wisconsin, eight in Michigan. And so on.
So spare me the screeching emails in ALL CAPS, OK? Polls were actually quite accurate in 2016. Trump narrowly defeated the odds. It can happen. But he's in far worse shape this time. Furthermore, early voting turnout is very high, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans two to one.
Hence, The Atlantic reports, "Trump's state and national legal teams are already laying the groundwork for post-election maneuvers that would circumvent the results of the vote count in battleground states."
The plan is clear. Because more Democrats than Republicans are choosing mail-in voting during the COVID pandemic, Trump hopes to prevent those ballots from being counted. Assuming he'll have a narrow "swing state" lead on election night, he'll declare victory and start filing lawsuits. "The red mirage," some Democrats call it.
"As a result," Toobin writes, "the aftermath of the 2020 election has the potential to make 2000 look like a mere skirmish." With Trump in the White House urging armed militias to take to the street.
Mail-in votes take a long time to count. Things could definitely get crazy.
True, but filing a lawsuit to halt a Florida recount was one thing. Filing suits against a half dozen states to prevent votes from being counted at all is quite another. Public reaction would be strong. Also, winning such lawsuits requires serious evidence of fraud. Trumpian bluster ain't evidence.
The Atlantic reports that GOP-controlled state legislatures are thinking about sending Trumpist delegations to the Electoral College regardless of the popular vote winner—theoretically constitutional but currently illegal.
Fat chance. If that's the best they've got, they've got nothing.
Anyway, here's the answer: Vote early, and in person*.

[Editor's note: In some states, receiving an absentee ballot means that a voter can no longer vote in person* or may have to surrender the absentee ballot, including the envelope in which it arrived, at their polling place. Please check with your local election authorities.]