U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer expressed reluctance Wednesday over downsizing the forces in Okinawa, saying the U.S. military presence is strategically important to the U.S. and Japan, and to the stability of the region.

“We can reduce the number of troops stationed here,” Schieffer said in a lecture at the Japan National Press Club. “But I think we also have to realistically understand that the forces here have a real strategic importance.”

Tokyo and Washington has been engaged in discussions on realignment of the approximately 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan. Okinawa and other local governments where U.S. bases are located are pressuring the central government to reduce the military presence.

But Schieffer stressed that the U.S. is carrying as much a “burden” as Japan by deploying its forces in Okinawa and elsewhere.

“While we understand that those forces are a burden on the people of Japan, we hope that the people of Japan understand that they are a burden on us as well,” he said.

Schieffer said that even though Japan, in its host nation role, covers much of the cost of basing U.S. forces here — about 238 billion yen in fiscal 2005 — it is “much cheaper” for the U.S. to keep its military at home.

On Iraq, Schieffer hinted Washington is hoping the Ground Self-Defense Force deployment will be extended for another year when it expires in December. GSDF troops are stationed in Samawah, southern Iraq, on a humanitarian mission.

“I don’t think the international community will be finished with their part of the task in helping to build Iraq,” he said. “But this is the decision that the Japanese government has to make.”

As for North Korea, Schieffer did not directly oppose Japan’s intention to take up the abduction issue during next week’s six-party talks, but he said the issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear threat must have priority.

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