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Neighbors of US Military Air Station Reject More Aircraft to Iwakuni

Voters in the Japanese city of Iwakuni have rejected a plan by the United States and Japan to host aircraft from the USS Kitty Hawk carrier in their community. VOA's Steve Herman reports from Tokyo that, despite the outcome of Sunday's referendum, the planes are still likely to be moved to the U.S. Marines Corps' air station. Voters in Iwakuni on Sunday overwhelmingly rejected a plan by the U.S. and Japanese government to double the number of American military aircraft stationed at a base there.

The mayor of Iwakuni, Katsusuke Ihara, an opponent of the U.S. base plan, proposed the referendum, which saw voters express their disapproval by a seven-to-one margin.

Base supporters say the margin of defeat is no surprise, because some Iwakuni city assembly members urged voters to boycott Sunday's referendum, arguing it was a waste of taxpayers' money, since the city has no power to stop the national government's bilateral agreement with the United States.

Yoshimichi Hirose is chairman of a group that urged voters to boycott the referendum. Hirose says he feels residents should be more flexible than those who reject any presence of U.S. forces in their community.

Sunday's plebiscite is not binding on the national government, but a city ordinance requires the mayor and city assembly to respect the results of the plebiscite, because turnout exceeded a 50 percent minimum of the 84,000 eligible voters.

Iwakuni residents have lived with the U.S. Marine Corps air station since the Americans arrived there in 1952, during the Korean War, taking over what had been an Imperial Japanese Navy facility.

The Iwakuni air station is home to some three-thousand Marines and an additional 16-hundred Marines would be added, along with 57 aircraft, now based a U.S. naval facility near Tokyo, under the terms of the Japanese-U.S. agreement.

Many of those voting against the plan said they are fed up with the noise from the American aircraft, and doubling the number of planes will just add to the misery.

But others in Iwakuni say the noise is worth living with, because the Marines are good for local businesses.

The expansion at Iwakuni is part of a sweeping realignment of U.S. forces in Japan that would also transfer up to eight-thousand Marines off the southern island of Okinawa, where there is strong opposition to the U.S. presence. Those Marines would be re-located to Guam, an American territory in the western Pacific.

Okinawa Governor Keiichi Inamine, during a meeting Sunday with a top-ranking foreign ministry official rejected Tokyo's insistence that, regardless of what local communities feel, the realignment plan will go forward, because it is part of a binding agreement with the United States, Japan's military ally.

The governor insists that central government officials should make changes to the U.S. force composition in a way that will be agreeable to the people of Okinawa.

The United States and Japan are set to announce at the end of this month a final agreement on how to implement the overall package, which was unveiled last

A U.S. government official familiar with the talks, who asked not to be named, said on Sunday the return to Japanese control of several facilities on the southern part of Okinawa, and moving Marines from there to Guam is conditional on relocating the capabilities of the returned bases to the northern part of Okinawa.