TOKYO, Mar 12 (Reuters) Residents of the Japanese city of Iwakuni were voting today in a referendum on the future of a US Marine base, the outcome of which could affect broader talks on the relocation of US forces throughout Japan.
Opposition from Iwakuni and other communities worried about noise, accidents and crime associated with US bases has hampered efforts to finalise by the end of March a plan to reorganise the nearly 50,000 US military personnel in Japan.
The realignment plan is part of a broader effort to transform the US military globally into a more flexible force.
In Japan, though, the stress has been on reducing tensions with communities where bases are located, especially on the southern island of Okinawa, host to nearly half the US troops.
At least 50 per cent of the nearly 85,000 eligible voters in Iwakuni, located some 1,000 km west of Tokyo, must turn out for the referendum to be valid.
While the result will not be binding, a ''No'' vote would be a headache for Washington and Tokyo.
The result of the Iwakuni referendum is ''one important voice of the people, so you can't treat it lightly'', Senior Vice Foreign Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki told Reuters last week.
''But there will be a time when the central government has to make a final decision, while taking that into account.'' 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, 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.
SAFETY AND SECURITY Sixty thousand Iwakuni residents have signed a petition against the aircraft transfer. A recent media survey showed 71 per cent were opposed.
Iwakuni Mayor Katsusuke Ihara, who called the referendum, opposes the plan but has said that if a majority of voters support it, he would work to minimise the impact on residents.
Ihara's critics say he is using the referendum to improve his prospects in a mayoral election in April after Iwakuni merges with seven nearby towns and villages. They have urged voters to boycott the referendum to keep turnout below 50 per cent.
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.
Residents, however, are more concerned about the direct impact on their daily lives. Some, especially those living closest to the base, worry about more noise pollution and crime.
Others hope the government would offer financial incentives and somehow help boost the local economy if the plan goes ahead.
Polls closed at 1630 hrs IST, and the results will be known late today.
Reuters OM VP0705