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3 Years of War Wither a Family's Seed of Hope

March 25, 2006|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — As U.S. forces made their way to the capital, Baher Butti sat alone in his house with the AK-47 that Baath Party officials had given him to guard his neighborhood. It was March 25, 2003, and the psychiatrist had just celebrated his 43rd birthday.

"The war on Iraq has started," he wrote in his diary. "I have not prepared myself to be a fighter but a doctor and a family man."

A man trained to heal the suffering of others, Butti would see trauma enter his own house in the three years to follow. Fighting and havoc would empty his church, claim the lives of friends and relatives and, finally, touch his 9-year-old daughter -- leaving her scarred and traumatized after a bomb ripped through her school bus.

That March night, Butti described sneaking out from his forced guard duty to see his wife and three children at her father's home.

"I used a road that I thought was convenient to avoid the risk of bombings. I returned back very quickly to resume my duties," he wrote. "I am now in my house. I feel mentally exhausted."

Target practice had been part of Butti's high school curriculum, and Baath Party membership was almost mandatory for him to work as a doctor. But the idea of using a weapon to defend the regime repelled him.

"I feel afraid after I was put by the [party] in this silly role," he wrote. "I was overcome by the feeling of being a sheep on the way to the slaughterhouse."

Street fighting never came to his neighborhood. On April 6, Butti crossed the river and joined his family. Together on a rooftop they watched the tanks enter the city. His wife, Balsam, a more vociferous critic of Saddam Hussein's regime, greeted arriving U.S. soldiers with tea and biscuits.

The soldiers refused.

"We were so happy" that the soldiers had arrived, Balsam Butti recalled later. "But they were afraid of us."

Her husband, for his part, was bewildered by the sight of Americans riding their tanks through the streets of his city.

The idea that his country was occupied by foreigners made Butti uncomfortable. Still, a hope grew. With the Americans, perhaps a kind of progress would arrive.

Butti, a graduate of the Jesuit High School in Baghdad, quickly became involved in local politics, writing pamphlets and columns. He talked to journalists and pontificated on the meaning of democracy, tyranny and freedom.

He stopped keeping a diary. His writing -- by necessity private during Hussein's regime -- became public.

In June, three months after the invasion, Butti was still trying to articulate what was happening in his country.

"When people saw the statue [of Hussein] falling in Firdos Square, the mountains of oppression that were in their souls started to explode," Butti wrote with characteristic flair.

With Hussein gone, U.S. forces watched as Iraqis looted the city. Freedom meant "do what you feel like," he wrote.

He was still ambivalent about the Americans -- "friend or an enemy?"

A few days after the invasion, his wife, an obstetrician, returned to her clinic. Their children, a girl and two boys, went back to school. And Butti resumed his job at Ibn Rushd Teaching Psychiatric Hospital, Baghdad's biggest mental hospital.

Psychiatry had been a neglected field in Iraq for decades. Butti and his colleagues maintained little contact with the outside world and relied on outdated theories and textbooks.

The psychiatrist dreamed of building a small clinic in Baghdad that would offer group therapy and counseling. He brought American doctors to Iraqi mental wards to show them Iraq's abysmal healthcare system. He sent funding proposals to the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ruled Iraq after Hussein's fall.

U.S. officials listened with sympathy but had no money for his project. Their priorities were first relief, then election campaigns and eventually security, he said.

As violence worsened, American and Iraqi officials moved into the Green Zone, a heavily fortified compound along the Tigris River. U.S. soldiers began to refer to the city outside as the "red zone." Baghdad was being divided.

"We used to meet them outside the Green Zone," Butti said of U.S. officials. "Then things became that we had to go to the Green Zone [because] they couldn't go out. Then our entrance to the Green Zone became very difficult."

Outside the compound, gunmen took over streets, kidnapping and killing Iraqis. Doctors and academics in particular became targets. By 2004, many of the doctors who stayed in Iraq carried guns as they made their hospital rounds.

Leaving the house became a gamble, said Butti, who refused to arm himself for work.

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