PORTLAND (AP) – An art student whose studies were delayed when his Army reserve unit was activated hopes to turn a toppled bust of Saddam Hussein into a public art project in Iraq.

Army Maj. Peter Buotte, a member of the Army Reserve’s 411th Civil Affairs Unit, said he has obtained preliminary approval to use at least one 20-foot bronze bust of the captured president.

“If it can be melted down, the intention is to have contact among Iraqi artists and use the material in a new project,” he told the Portland Press Herald. “It seems that it would be kind of fitting.”

Buotte, an Augusta native, was working on his master’s degree at Maine College of Art in Portland when his unit was activated in February. He arrived in Iraq in April and is scheduled to remain there until sometime in 2004.

Buotte, who is stationed in Baghdad, has one semester of work to complete for his degree, said Katarina Weslien, co-director of MECA’s master’s program.

Four identical 20-foot bronze busts were removed from a former presidential palace just days before U.S. forces captured Saddam.

At least two of the sculptures are earmarked for a museum, and Buotte has lobbied to use one of the others for his project.

Buotte’s initial duty in Iraq was to help the country’s Ministry of Education reopen schools after the U.S. assault on the city. During that project, he designed a bumper sticker that implored Iraqi students to “Improve Yourself, Improve Your Country” by going back to school.

With that mission accomplished, Buotte lately has been working with neighborhood leadership councils in the city to determine needs and priorities.

“We’re focusing on things like sewage and electricity. We’re asking each neighborhood to come up with a top project that they want to see accomplished, and then we, as the military, will support them with the technology to help get the project completed,” he said.

One example is the conversion of a former Republican Guard training complex into a multipurpose community center that will include a primary school, a youth center, a medical clinic and sports facility.

Buotte intends to pursue his art idea before his tour ends.

The project has been on his mind for several months, but official duties have prevented Buotte from being fully engaged.

As he watched workers remove the busts last week, he recommitted himself to the idea and pledged to make the necessary contacts.

In fact, Buotte hopes to focus his master’s thesis on the Iraqi project, he said. He sent a letter to MECA President Christine Vincent, seeking her help in raising money to pay for the project.

“I still have time here, and I am still going to pursue it,” he said. “If I can’t make it happen during my time here with the military, I would consider coming back and doing it on my own time.”

AP-ES-12-17-03 0925EST

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