April 7, 2009 / 10:28 PM / 10 years ago

Obama visit a reminder of off-the-radar Iraq war

(For more on Obama’s visit to Iraq see [ID:nN07461054])

* Only 2 pct of U.S. media coverage is about Iraq

* Many in U.S. think Iraq conflict over, reality different

* Veterans returning at time of rising unemployment

By Claudia Parsons

NEW YORK, April 7 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Iraq on Tuesday returned the spotlight to a war that has all but dropped off the news radar screen in the United States, which is preoccupied by its economic crisis.

Television news, chat shows and other media are dominated by reports of massive job losses, home foreclosures, collapsed banks and automakers on the verge of bankruptcy.

Some veterans groups say that makes it harder for servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to get the help they need to return to civilian life.

Pete Hegseth, head of Vets for Freedom, said part of the reason for the reduced attention is that violence has fallen.

“Who would have thought Iraq would be one of the problems that President Obama has to deal with the least?” he said.

But Alissa Rubin, New York Times bureau chief in Baghdad, said Iraq was in a dynamic and critical phase leading up to the drawdown of U.S. troops. “It’s only as they pull out you see just how bad the violence might be,” she said.

“If you’re sitting in New York or Washington or small-town Kansas, you look at Iraq and think ‘OK, well, that war is kind of over...,’ and you move on,” Rubin said.

“That’s clearly the way most Americans see it, it’s not on the front burner. But the reality is different,” she said.

The New York Times keeps at least three international reporters and a photographer in Baghdad in addition to locally hired personnel. But most U.S. media outlets, facing pressure to cut costs, have trimmed overseas staff, relying on agencies such as Reuters and the Associated Press.

IRAQ FELL OFF THE AGENDA IN US ELECTION CAMPAIGN

Iraq was already falling off the U.S. public’s agenda last year.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, the Iraq conflict in 2008 generated only about 4 percent of coverage, down from 16 percent in 2007.

“The war, once expected to be the burning issue in the (U.S.) presidential campaign, receded sharply,” it said in a report that analyzed U.S. newspapers, cable and network television, radio and online news.

The project’s associate director, Mark Jurkowitz, said so far this year, Iraq accounts for only 2 percent of coverage.

That compared to about 2 percent for Afghanistan, 1 percent for Iran and 3 percent for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said most Americans feel little connection to the wars since only half a percent of them have a relative serving.

“With the economic downturn and the reduction of media, it’s gotten harder and harder for us to get the message out,” he said. “We know it’s going to be a tough year for Americans, but it’s going to be a tough year for veterans.”

He said more veterans will be returning and looking for work at a time of rising unemployment, and many have physical and mental health issues.

“Unemployment for veterans is over 11 percent,” Rieckhoff said, adding that the rate of home foreclosures near military bases was several times higher than the national average.

Obama has refocused strategy on eliminating al Qaeda in Afghanistan, promising to send another 21,000 troops to join the 38,000 U.S. forces already there. The number in Iraq remains much higher — around 140,000.

“It’s good to have a day of news cover focused on Iraq again,” Rieckhoff said. “It’s still a very dangerous place, and we still have a lot of people over there.”

Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Vicki Allen

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