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By Nabih Bulos and Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

IRBIL, Iraq — Islamic militants took control of two more cities in northeastern Iraq on Friday, prompting a senior cleric in the violence-plagued country to call on Shiite Muslim followers to take up arms against the invaders.

Fighters from the resurgent al-Qaeda splinter group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have rolled over large swaths of Iraqi territory in recent days, meeting little resistance from Iraq’s marginalized Sunni Muslim minority and wide-scale retreat of Iraqi soldiers.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani called Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Friday to pledge his Shiite government’s support, and Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard force said it was prepared to join the fight.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will apply all its efforts on the international and regional levels to confront terrorism,” Rouhani told al-Maliki, according to the official IRNA news agency.

A prominent Shiite cleric in Karbala, Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, told worshipers during Friday prayers that it was every Iraqi’s civic duty to take up arms and defend the country against the militants aiming to create a proto-state spanning Iraq and Syria and ruled by Islamic sharia law.

“All citizens who are able to bear arms and fight the terrorists in defense of their nation, people and holy sites should volunteer and join the security forces to achieve this holy aim,” al-Karbalaie urged in his sermon.

“Iraq is facing a grave and significant challenge and the terrorists aim not only to control some of the provinces but instead they stated that they are targeting all the provinces, especially Baghdad and Karbala and Najaf,” he said. “Thus the responsibility of stopping them and fighting is the responsibility of all and is not restricted to any one creed.”

Karbalai, who represents Iraq’s most revered spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said anyone who sacrifices his life “in defense of his country, people, and honor, will be a martyr.”

The Defense Ministry in Baghdad announced the opening of 23 recruitment centers across eight Iraqi provinces to arm and deploy volunteers.

The cleric’s appeal followed fresh advances by the ISIS militants, who seized Jalula and Sadiyah in Diyala province, about 80 miles and 60 miles northeast of Baghdad, respectively. Early this week they conquered Mosul, Iraq’s biggest city north of Baghdad, and rolled over Sunni-populated towns and cities from the Syrian border as far south as some suburbs of the capital.

ISIS gunmen offered the Iraqi government forces safe passage out of the two cities taken Friday in exchange for abandoning their weapons and vehicles, residents reported.

The Iraqi army, like most of the country’s shaky institutions, is riven with corruption and sectarian divides. Al-Maliki, the hard-line Shiite in power since 2006, has failed to create a government that includes representation of the Sunni minority or provides fair access to jobs, services and the nation’s huge oil wealth. Sunni resentment of the central government has made their areas easy conquests for ISIS, considered one of the most potent extremist groups in the world and its leader the ideological successor to al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.

In London, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Friday that the Obama administration was considering how to help Baghdad put down the rebellion because the militants are a threat not just to Iraq but to the entire world.

“Every country that understands the importance of stability in the Middle East needs to be concerned about what is happening,” Kerry said. “That is why I am confident the United States will move rapidly and confidently in order to join with its allies in dealing with this challenge.”

Kerry said the latest violence in Iraq should be a “wake-up call” to al-Maliki to build a more inclusive and responsive government.

In Geneva, a spokesman for the U.N. Human Rights Commission said ISIS fighters were reported to be summarily executing Iraqi soldiers who remained in Mosul, as well as others identified as loyal to the Baghdad leadership.

An unknown number of soldiers and at least 17 civilians were slain by the militants on a single street in Mosul, said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the world body’s rights office.

AFP Photo/Safin Hamed

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

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