Is Iraq dropping down the election agenda? [GALLO/GETTY]

Iraq, according to opinion polls ahead of Tuesday's New Hampshire US election primary vote, is a declining concern for voters deciding on their next president.

In New Hampshire itself, domestic issues such as health care and the economy are on the rise, while US intervention in the Middle East is seemingly growing less important.

But there is one group of residents of the north-eastern state for whom the Iraq war remains very real - the soldiers who fought there.

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For veterans of the Iraq war now re-adjusting to civilian life in New Hampshire, the conflict in the Middle East remains the key issue on how they will vote.

"The parties and media have turned the war into simply another partisan issue," Ryan McCarthy, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, told Al Jazeera.

 "The Democrats have to have an anti-war stance and so they run with that [but] Hillary Clinton's vote to authorise force against Iraq doesn't keep her from being anti-war," he says.

Ryan, a staff seargant in the Army National Guard, quit the army after serving in Iraq because of the policies of the Bush administration.

He believes the war has been used by candidates of both parties to serve their own agendas.

"As a campaign issue, the war is only one of many issues that the candidates use to demonstrate party purity," he says.

McCain backed

New Hampshire is home to about 132,000 veterans aged 20 or over, from a variety of military campaigns including Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, according to a New Hampshire Employment Security report.

John McCain has gained support
from New Hampshire veterans [EPA]
With the non-veteran population (20 or over) standing at approximately 840,000, veterans vote could prove important in the primary vote and in November's final poll.

Twenty soldiers from New Hampshire have been killed in Iraq during the conflict and 173 wounded.

And while some veterans are critical of the war and the candidates use of it during the primary, others are actively involved in supporting getting their candidate elected.

Republican John McCain, who said last week that he would keep US troops in Iraq for 100 years if necessary, reportedly counts the largest number of Iraq veterans among his supporters.

Kurt Webber, a former army lieutenant colonel, is one of those backing McCain's vision for Iraq.

"McCain is committed to succeeding there," Webber told the Boston Globe newspaper.

"The reason is we have accomplished a lot of good things there that the average American is not aware of."

Issues linked

Other New Hampshire veterans are firmly anti-war.

William Hopkins is backing Dennis Kucinich, the Democrat outsider who has consistently opposed the war in Iraq.

He argues that the issues of Iraq and economy are intertwined.

"Iraq is the key issue because it is a part of nearly everything, it is our largest federal expenditure, and thus the prime cause of our immense debt and the rapid inflation we are currently experiencing," he told Al Jazeera.

"Iraq is also a clear violation of international law, the UN charter, and the US constitution, as an American patriot, I believe the constitution is the backbone of this country, and as long as it is ignored we are betraying the flag."

Declining issue
 

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It is the Democrats who are best placed to take advantage of people's frustration over the Republican administration's performance over the war, says Felice Belman, executive editor of the New Hamsphire's Concord Monitor newspaper.
 
"It definitely feels that there is much more enthusiasm here in New Hampshire on the Democratic side," she told Al Jazeera.

"Many people here are tired of the war, sceptical of the administration and just want a real break."

That is a view shared by the electorate, according to recent polls by the University of New Hampshire Survey Centre.

In June 2007, 57 per cent of New Hampshire Democrats said Iraq was the most important issue on which they would base their primary vote.

But by mid-December, that had dropped to just 31 per cent, with the same number of people saying health care was their key voting issue.

Republican voters reported a similar shift with 36 per cent preparing to vote on Iraq in June but just 13 per cent

The candidates are also spending less time and money on Iraq.

According to a recent report published by the New York Times newspaper, the amount of airtime devoted to Iraq has been steadily falling since October, in line with a drop in reported violence there.

Veterans struggle

But to those who fought there, the war still raises practical issues that have an impact on their daily lives.

In particular, many veterans have expressed anger at the poor healthcare they have received, as well as the lack of disability benefits afforded to them.
 
McCarthy, who has now left the US army, says that, in his experience, administrative handling of veterans on their return home has been poor.

"The New Hampshire Guard showed itself to be almost completely incapable of basic administrative tasks during and after our deployment,” he said.

"Their family support program was excellent … but their handling of paperwork is pathetic. It shows a fundamental lack of concern for individual soldiers."

Signs of change

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The candidates are keen to associate themselves with New Hampshire veterans, with many holding events at veterans' homes.

But in their speeches following last weeks Iowa caucuses, won by Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee, none mentioned Iraq as an issue, a sign that the pollsters' message was being heeded.
 
Democratic national front-runner Hillary Clinton talked at length about healthcare, while her rival John Edwards returned to his theme of corporate greed.

On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee, flying high in the polls, ended his Iowa campaign with a speech largely devoted to the economy.

Iraq did feature in recent Republican debates ahead of New Hampshire, but only in a spat between Huckabee and Mitt Romney over whether the latter had backed last summers increase of US troop numbers in Iraq, now widely seen as a success in the US.

But despite these small signs of change, it may be left to veterans to ensure that Iraq is on voters' minds as they cast their votes on Tuesday in the state.

Source: Al Jazeera