Japanese city rejects relocation of U.S. Navy air wing

Monday, March 13, 2006

TOKYO -- The southern Japanese city of Iwakuni on Sunday overwhelmingly rejected the relocation of a U.S. naval air wing, in a nonbinding vote that has emerged as a symbol of opposition to the proposed realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.

The plan to move the wing to Iwakuni -- still under negotiation -- is part of the Pentagon's push to streamline its overseas bases and create a leaner, more flexible military. The push is also meant to ease tension caused by the U.S. military presence, notably over soldiers accused of crimes.

A total of 43,433 residents in the city -- which is already the site of a U.S. Marine base -- voted against the relocation; just 5,369 voted in favor, final results showed.

With concerns high, some 58 percent of Iwakuni's 85,000 eligible voters cast ballots, said Fumitoshi Yoshiga, a city official -- easily over the 50 percent needed for the vote to be valid.

The plans call for the air wing from the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, now based near Tokyo, to be moved to the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, 450 miles southwest of the capital.

Under the plan, some 57 aircraft, including F/A-18 fighters, and 1,600 troops would relocate to the base. Currently 3,500 U.S. troops, most of them Marines, are stationed there.

Some Iwakuni residents, including the mayor, have opposed relocating the Kitty Hawk because of the risk of accidents and increased noise from nighttime fighter jet training.

"This is an important issue for our city. It is natural that we would want our voice to be heard," Mayor Katsusuke Ihara said Sunday night,

He said the city supports the current base arrangement, but added he opposes any significant increase in the military presence. He said earlier Sunday he would ask the government to scrap the relocation if the final vote was against it.

Senior Japanese officials, including the chief of Japan's Defense Agency, have said the outcome of the vote will not derail the realignment talks.

About 50,000 U.S. military personnel are based in Japan, most on the southern island state of Okinawa, which was occupied by the United States at the end of World War II and returned to Japan in 1972.

Three U.S. servicemen were convicted of raping a 12-year-old girl there in 1995, sparking huge protests.

The case resulted in an agreement that the U.S. military would hand over American suspects in serious crimes to Japanese authorities for pre-indictment investigation.

In January, the head of U.S. forces in Japan apologized to Japanese defense officials for an American sailor's alleged killing of a Japanese woman earlier that month.

The total cost of the realignment for Japan could be more than $25 billion over 10 years, including a $8.5 billion plan to relocate a U.S. air base to another area on Okinawa, the business newspaper Nihon Keizai reported, citing government estimates.

On Saturday and Sunday, some 2,000 residents of Zama City, just south of Tokyo, rallied to oppose plans to boost troop numbers and upgrade facilities at a U.S. Army base there.

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