The first large contingent of U.S. troops will return from the Persian Gulf war Thursday, according to Pentagon sources, who said President Bush plans to greet the troops at a welcoming ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base.

The returning soldiers will include members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, which was the first American combat force sent to the gulf last August, the sources said.About 4,400 members of the XVIII Airborne Corps, including members of the 82nd Airborne from Fort Bragg, N.C., will be among the first greeted by Bush, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Within three days of the initial return ceremony, about 15,000 members of all service branches are expected to be back in the United States from the gulf area, the sources said.

Beyond the initial ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, plans were still being formulated for further troop movements. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has said it would take at least six months to take the full contingent of U.S. forces in the gulf - now numbering about 540,000 - out of the region for reassignment.

The troop returns are expected to follow a pattern of "first-in, first-out," meaning those who arrived in Saudi Arabia last August would be among the first to return home.