First troops return as Pentagon works to speed homecomings Bush reportedly planning ceremony at Andrews WAR IN THE GULF


WASHINGTON -- Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of allied forces in the Persian Gulf, is working on plans for a quick return of victorious U.S. forces, Pentagon officials acknowledged yesterday.

The acknowledgment came amid reports that President Bush would welcome home more than 4,000 troops of the 82nd Airborne Division tomorrow in a ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside the nation's capital.

The White House and the Pentagon denied yesterday that such plans had been made.

But the denials could be an attempt to avoid upstaging the president when he addresses a joint session of Congress tonight.

In that speech, the president is expected to address the timing of the return of more than 540,000 Americans serving in the Persian Gulf, a deployment that nearly equals the height of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. There were reports that up to 15,000 troops could come home within a week.

Mr. Bush also is expected to discuss war funding and to call for curbs on arms proliferation in the Middle East.

The House Appropriations Committee voted yesterday to spend $42.6 billion to finance the war. The legislation includes $15 billion of taxpayers' funds, plus the authority to spend up to $27.6 billion more in promised assistance from U.S. allies.

The president hailed the troops yesterday as "American heroes" and said "hometowns all across America" would welcome them home soon.

"Their magnificent victory in the gulf has brought a renewed sense in pride and confidence here at home," Mr. Bush said. "It's contagious; it's all over our country. You can feel it every single minute."

The president has promised to start withdrawing the troops deployed in Operation Desert Storm as soon as stable peace arrangements permit.

But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, asked yesterday whether the political turmoil in Iraq could affect the pace of the U.S. withdrawal, replied, "It could, sure."

Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said General Schwarzkopf was working on the redeployment plans with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"It's not like we're trying to keep this thing under a bushel basket," Mr. Williams said in response to questions about news reports of a symbolic homecoming celebration involving the president.

"We are very proud of what our troops have done over there, and we know that it's of intense interest to their families, their friends, their communities, their states and their nation."

Mr. Williams said Defense Department officials wanted the returning troops "to get the best possible reception that they can get."

The Pentagon planned to follow a "first in, first out" policy, meaning that units such as the 82nd Airborne, which arrived in Saudi Arabia in August, would be among the first to go home.

Advance parties from the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) left Iraq yesterday to assist in planning a homecoming to Fort Stewart, Ga.

The administration welcomed yesterday's release of 35 allied POWs to Red Cross officials in Baghdad.

Mr. Williams said the POWs, 15 of whom were Americans, would be flown out of Baghdad today after an allied transport carries 294 Iraqi POWs to Baghdad. He said the exchange had been set for yesterday, but poor weather caused a delay.

Maj. Gen. Martin Brandtner, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said interviews with the first six U.S. POWs to be released indicated that "they were treated well."

General Brandtner said there was no reason to doubt the Iraqis' claims that they held no more allied prisoners.

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