Kirkuk's new city council will select a mayor Wednesday, making the city the second in Iraq to take this step toward democracy since the end of the war. But like its northern neighbor, Mosul, oil-rich Kirkuk faces a daunting challenge: to create a functioning society while excluding most of the people who once made the country tick - members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
In a society where some 2 million people were registered Baathists, and where the vast majority of top- and mid-level jobs went to party members, "de-Baathification" - excluding Hussein loyalists from the political process while admitting those who may have been forced to work for the regime - is a major hurdle in Iraq's transition from dictatorship to democracy. Iraq's north is being looked to as the crucible of this process.
Ten days ago, L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian administrator in Iraq and head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), announced that 15,000 to 30,000 die-hard Baath Party loyalists would be banned from holding senior official jobs. This reverses an earlier US policy that excluded a much smaller top group.
With 23 ministries to revive, the original ORHA thinking was that expediency was the main priority. So senior professors, high-ranking officials, and top technocrats - many with questionable backgrounds - all trundled back to work. But after a series of protests in the capital against the return of the likes of Baghdad University president Mohammed al-Rawi, Mr. Hussein's personal physician; and Ali Shnan al-Janabi, a Baath Party leader who was appointed by the US as Health Minister, ORHA's stance changed.
In Kirkuk, as elsewhere, many regular Iraqis who suffered years of discrimination at the hands of Baathists, welcomed the new guidelines. But some worry that those who deserve a second chance might be left out of the mix while others - the so-called "bad Baathists" - might slip in.
"Its not a perfect system...." admits Lt. Col. Todd McGill, an intelligence officer with the 4th Infantry Division, which is in charge of Kirkuk. "We realize people have grievances and want revenge. But we also know they are different levels of Baathists. We are looking for the criminals."
Over the weekend, 300 leaders of Kirkuk's four main ethnic groups - Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, and Assyrians - chose 24 members of the new 30-person interim council, with the US selecting six independent representatives. Two prominent Baathists were prohibited by the US last week from entering the election. On Monday, the council chose three assistant mayors. One, Irfan Kerkuklu, is assigned to remove Hussein loyalists from public office.
Wednesday the council will select the city's new mayor. But as an endless flow of Kirkuk residents wander into the 4th Infantry Division headquarters with scraps of paper listing names of suspected top Baathists - many of whom, admit the soldiers here, have extremely similar, even identical names to other, different people - some wonder if holding elections under these circumstances, and in a city already simmering with ethnic tensions, is a bit premature.
"We know who is who. They are infamous," says Hussein Ali, a restaurant worker who has a scrap of paper with the names of 10 Baathists on it. "Only," he admits, "everyone has heard of different ones, so it can all be slightly unwieldy."
Violence in other parts of Iraq have some saying that Baath Party loyalists are determined to stir up trouble. Two US soldiers were killed and nine were wounded Tuesday in a firefight in Fallujah, a town that benefited greatly under Hussein's rule. Some members of the Iraqi National Congress, a US-backed opposition group, say that Baathists are behind those attacks.
Ali Salhi, a Kurdish opposition leader who spent the past 30 years in exile in South Dakota, is back in Kirkuk and expects to be appointed mayor. "Who will we find in Iraq who is not tainted?" he asks. "Everyone was tainted and corrupted, 99 percent." If he is not selected, he adds, he will be gravely disappointed. "Sadly, it might be that the new government will be filled with Saddam's old men."
But, stresses Colonel McGill, the US recognizes that many were forced to become Baathists. "There may have been a policeman who had to join the party to keep his job and then moved into a higher level - but does that mean he is a criminal, or he can't be a productive member of the new society?" he asks.
"Of course it's hard to ensure the vetting process is 100 percent, but until when do we wait for an election?" asks Maj. Josslyn Aberle, a spokeswoman for the 4th Infantry Division. "We believe in going forward and putting a new government in place while we are still here. If dirty laundry comes up later, we will be here to deal with it."
In Mosul, where the country's first municipal elections were held earlier this month, 101st Airborne commander Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, who oversaw the election, discovered firsthand the difficulties of the vetting process. General Petraeus demanded that those getting top positions in the city administration sign forms certifying that they were never Baath Party members, and expressly denounce the party and the Hussein regime. He admits he knew some were lying, and he is now weeding them out all over again.
Meanwhile, stresses Petraeus, it is important not to alienate or humiliate those former member of the party, even if they are not allowed to participate formally in the political process. For example, Mishan al-Jaburi, said to have been a business partner of Hussein's son Uday, was left out of the election process in Mosul, but still remains a power broker in town and was instrumental in organizing the elections.
"Look at Kurt Waldhiem...." says Lt. Col Edward Erikson, the political adviser to the 4th Infantry Division, referring to the former Nazi who eventually became president of Austria. "You can even be a Nazi and then go on to be a contributing member of society. People can change."
"Those kind of people are welcome to change," says Jamal Alubayda, a delegate who helped choose the council. "But they will only contribute to the new Iraq from a distance. Their days are done."