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GINOWAN, Okinawa — An independent candidate who opposes U.S. military bases on Okinawa was elected mayor of Futenma, a city hosting a Marine Corps air station.

However, his election is not expected to affect the progress of moving Marine air operations to a new offshore base planned for rural northeast Okinawa.

Yoichi Iha, 51, defeated Osamu Ashitomi, 47, who represented Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine’s ruling coalition.

He replaces Mayor Seiko Higa, who resigned after his March arrest for accepting illegal donations during his 2001 re-election campaign.

Higa, 64, was a strong supporter of a U.S.-Japan agreement in 1996 that called for the return of 21 percent of the land on Okinawa used for U.S. bases. A key component of the plan was closing MCAS Futenma and moving Marine air operations to an alternate location. A site in the waters off the fishing village of Henoko, adjacent to Camp Schwab, later was chosen for the new base, which also will be used by civilian aircraft.

Although Iha opposes the move, his election is expected to have little impact on the plan, say officials with the Japan Defense Facilities Administration. An environmental assessment of the Henoko area is under way in preparation for the construction phase of the new airport.

Nevertheless, during a news conference Monday morning, Iha promised to be a thorn in Inamine’s side on the issue.

“I made an appeal that the voices of the residents of Ginowan must be heard,” Iha said. “The ongoing national government-led project to move the Futenma air station to Henoko completely ignores the voice of local residents.

“I believe that moving the Futenma operations outside Okinawa is possible. It is a feasible choice.”

One of his first moves as mayor may be to file a lawsuit in a U.S. federal court concerning the alleged danger MCAS Futenma poses to the surrounding community.

“Our residents are constantly exposed to incessant aircraft noise,” he said. “Such conditions are absolutely unacceptable.

“My job is to give the rest of the people in Japan, and people in the United States, as well, a good picture of what is going on here. The constant noise over the city, ignoring the well-being of our residents, is clearly an illegal activity.”

Inamine said he “humbly” accepted the decision of the voters of Ginowan.

“Emotionally speaking, it is the ultimate wish of all people on Okinawa to make Okinawa a prefecture free of military bases,” he told Japanese reporters shortly after he learned of his candidate’s defeat. But politicians often must make difficult decisions, and the move of MCAS Futenma to Henoko was one of them, he said.

“I have chosen a realistic course,” Inamine said. “I will make an effort to move the air station out of Ginowan as early as possible. And I will work closely with the mayor of Ginowan for a successful reutilization of the land on Futenma after the base moves.”

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