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After 6 years fighting in Iraq, Americans' interest wanes

(CNN) -- With the economic crisis nearly dominating the 24-hour news cycle, a sense of fatigue over the war in Iraq has begun to settle in with the American public, as its sixth anniversary nears.

While economic issues affect almost all Americans, public interest in the ongoing military action in Iraq has dropped off over the past few years as conditions on the ground there have improved and the relevance to the average American family's pocketbook wears thin.

"This is already one of the longest wars in American history. There's nothing new in Iraq," said Steven Roberts, a professor of media studies at The George Washington University. "We've read the stories of instability in the government a hundred times. Every single possible story has been told, and so there is enormous fatigue about Iraq."

But while daily operations in Iraq may not pique the attention of Americans, the costs do.

Around $700 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, has been appropriated from the 2003-2009 fiscal years. The figure, taking into account operations for 2010 FY, puts the price tag around $800 billion.

And while the rate of U.S. deaths has slowed since a spike in 2007, it has added up over six years.

According to CNN's count as of March 12, 4,259 Americans have been killed in the war since it started on March 19, 2003, when President George W. Bush announced to the world in a televised address that the U.S. was taking action to "disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger."

But based on recent polling and exit polling from the November presidential elections, the war isn't a big concern to Americans.

The economy was the top issue in the election among 62 percent of voters questioned in exit polls on November 4. The war was a distant second, with only 10 percent saying it was their top concern.

Those who picked the Iraq war as their top issue mostly voted for President Obama in all but two states, according to the exit polling results. But those who picked terrorism as their top concern overwhelmingly choose Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, according to exit polling.

McCain, a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq and the subsequent "surge" of troops in 2007, was forced, in essence, to focus his attention on the economy -- an issue early in the campaign he conceded he wasn't well-versed in.

Iraq, terrorism and national security, after all, were McCain's strong suits as a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a revered Vietnam POW and strong advocate of military personnel rights.

Obama, however, touted his opposition to Iraq war during the presidential campaign. But as the economy started to dip, so did attention on Iraq.

"When John McCain started his campaign, about 36 or 38 percent of Americans thought Iraq and the war on terror were the most important issue facing the country," said Steven Roberts, a professor of media and public affairs at The George Washington University. "If you look at the exit polls on election day, it was [nearly] in the single digits."

"No matter how overwhelming the war was in terms of public opinion and priorities, it never directly affected most Americans [as the economy has]. ... The economy affects every single family directly every day," Roberts added.

Marc Dixon, a professor of sociology at Dartmouth College, said social activists protesting the war such as Code Pink -- while a strong force during the election -- have "seen a drop off." The reason?

"The improving conditions in Iraq may be taking the sting out of activist claims," he said.

The U.S. military recently announced that the number of troops in Iraq will drop by 12,000 over the next six months. The reduction of coalition forces, according to the military, is a result of "an increased level of security and stability" that the country has achieved over the past year.

As conditions improve in Iraq, news coverage has decreased, in large part because of economic realities plaguing media organizations around the world.

"There have been enormous cutbacks in every news organization ... foreign coverage is always the first to go ... but the economic pressures on news organizations, which of course were there long before the latest economic crisis, is a long running story now," Roberts said.

Michael O'Hanlon, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution, added that the Iraq story is "less interesting because there are smaller news bureaus and the stories are more limited in their scope and there's not much on Iraq's evolution; they are more about a suicide bombing on Sunday or that sort of thing."

"And obviously after six years, Americans are going to be a little sick of it," he said.

And while it seemed for a while that the situation in Iraq would be the front-and-center issue in the 2008 campaign, the economic downturn and other pressing issues took hold. That showed with McCain's popularity in the general election polls.

"The candidates dropped Iraq from being paramount to the economy, sensing that big changes were underway," Dixon said.

Currently, there are 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. During his presidential campaign, Obama pledged to withdraw those troops within 16 months of taking office.

Last month, Obama adjusted his timetable to 19 months after taking office -- August 2010 -- and that between 35,000 and 50,000 troops will remain to help execute a drawdown plan. All U.S. forces are set to be out of Iraq by December 31, 2011.

"I think Obama's decision to keep most of the forces in this year and then go down to a residual force -- which still keeps about 50,000 troops after the August 2010 timeline -- is very prudent," O'Hanlon said. "It doesn't guarantee success, but it certainly improves our prospects of being able to execute sort of a gradual, careful drawdown."

O'Hanlon pointed out that there are still big problems facing Iraq, including terrorism and Arab-Kurd issues, which center around land and oil.

"When you have that issue unresolved and have all these elections unfolding in 2009, it's good to go slowly through that year and then to transition down to a force that retains some capability after executing the major drawdown," he said.

But that residual force was criticized by top Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. They called into question why such a large force was needed for noncombat operations.

"As President Obama's Iraq policy is implemented, the remaining missions given to our remaining forces must be clearly defined and narrowly focused so that the number of troops needed to perform them is as small as possible," Pelosi said in a news release on February 27.

O'Hanlon said that he'd be "extremely surprised" if Pelosi and Reid want to "run the risk of undercutting their own president and being seen as people who had disrupted an otherwise carefully devised plan and thereby put the entire progress we've seen in Iraq at risk."

"I'm quite confident in the end that even though they may have to hold their nose while they do it, they will support Obama's request," he added.

After 6 years fighting in Iraq, Americans' interest wanes -  Source

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