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Japan local politics clouds US Marine base plan

Written by: Staff

IWAKUNI, Japan, Mar 5 (Reuters) Noise, crime and jobs -- not national security -- will be foremost in Kazuki Miyano's mind when he and other Iwakuni residents vote next week on the future of a US Marine base in their midst.

The outcome of the March 12 referendum, a rare exercise in Japanese direct democracy, isn't binding. But it could affect efforts by Tokyo and Washington to finalise a sweeping plan to reorganise the 50,000 American troops in Japan, part of a global US effort to transform its military into a more flexible force.

Part of the plan calls for the transfer of 57 carrier-based planes and about 1,600 military personnel from Atsugi Naval base near Tokyo -- where locals have long complained of flight noise -- to Iwakuni, about 600 miles (1,000 km) west of the capital and already home to more than 3,000 Marines and 57 US aircraft.

The transfer would take place in 2009 after completion of an offshore runway built on reclaimed land. In return, 17 Japanese planes and 700 Japanese military personnel would move to Atsugi.

''Flight noise is the biggest worry,'' said Miyano, 26, one of about 100 people who gathered at a public hall late last week to hear Iwakuni Mayor Katsusuke Ihara explain the referendum.

''On the other hand, if the base expands, there might be more jobs and it might help boost Iwakuni's economy,'' Miyano said.

''I'll vote for sure, but I haven't decided how.'' Located some 350 miles from the tense border between North and South Korea, US Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni would play a key role in any conflict involving the peninsula.

Still, Iwakuni commanding officer Colonel Michael Dyer is not surprised strategic concerns are not the focus of local debate.

''What they are concerned about are their day-to-day jobs, taking care of their families, putting food on the table, sending their kids to school,'' Dyer told Reuters in an interview in his office on the sprawling base between the city and the sea.

''I don't think the local people understand that Americans here are willing to give up their lives to protect them,'' said Dyer, who has served 14 years in Japan, mostly on the island of Okinawa, host to the bulk of US troops in Japan.

''Even if they were told that, I don't think they'd believe it.'' Opposition from Iwakuni and other communities worried about noise, accidents and crime associated with US bases has hampered efforts to wrap up the realignment plan by the end of March, including a proposal to relocate a Marine heliport within Okinawa and shift 7,000 of the island's 18,000 Marines to Guam.

More Reuters PG GC1023

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