Iowa City is about as far away from Baghdad as possible, but many here have made the war in Iraq the centerpiece in their political activism.
Presidential-nomination candidates coming through the UI campus, usually Democrats, appear to have recognized this, with many delivering Iraq or general foreign-policy speeches. This has happened even after the past several months' reductions in American and Iraqi deaths have allowed other issues to become more prominent.
Despite a drop in violence and news stories, Iraq remains a driving force among politically active students, especially those on the left, and the presidential campaigns know it.
"There's definitely a vibrant antiwar community" in Iowa City, University Democrats President Atul Nakhasi said. "People here see [repairing diplomatic relations] as key to moving on and solving a lot of problems facing our country."
That activism has boiled over in several instances, such as when war protesters, including several students, occupied the Cedar Rapids offices of Iowa Sens. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, and Republican Charles Grassley in July.
"We're spending $9 billion a day, and that money could be used for education or health care," said UI senior Brian Shearer, one of the activists arrested in Grassley's office.
A member of the UI Antiwar Committee, he said he sees the war as a distillation of many failed policies from the Bush administration. Now, along with the committee, he has an opportunity to get candidates to address the issue.
"We've had candidates come to Iowa City in the past who said they were antiwar, and yet, they voted for war funding," Shearer said, specifically mentioning one speech by Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.
Iowa City tends to see a lot of speeches on Iraq and other foreign policy issues.
The Iowa City Foreign Relations Council has been driving some of the trend by inviting the presidential-nomination candidates on each side to come and speak on foreign policy in Iowa City, with several taking them up.
Several have accepted, but the large antiwar presence in "the People's Republic of Johnson County" has also upped the Iraq discussions.
Over the past several months several Democratic candidates have devoted entire speeches in the area to foreign policy, not including their remarks to the council. In an early November foreign policy speech, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama announced his military-contractor policy.
"If [the war] doesn't come up in the remarks, it generally comes up in questions" at candidate events, said Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist.
Campaigns know the war will be brought up when coming into Johnson County, he said.
"A lot of times the candidates will start with remarks on the war," because they know it will come up again later, he said.
The local environment can be unfriendly to those who disagree, however.
"I've been called everything in the book," said Ben Johnson, the chairman of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans, who believes the United States should stay in Iraq.
He said that while he doesn't take issue with people opposing the war, he would like to see more activism to help the troops.
"If you want to be against something that an administration is doing, that's fine," he said. "But personally, I take my energy and I use it toward an actual assertive goal," citing a program sending care packages to soldiers in Iraq started by the UI College Republicans.
Iowans concerned with the war are approaching a crossroads. With fewer than three weeks left before the Jan. 3 caucuses, national attention is less dead-set on the war.
Shearer, however, isn't concerned.
"Our generation and the generation below us is just becoming mre informed and more involved," he said.
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© 2007 The Daily Iowan via U-WIRE