Thousands of joyful U.S. troops in armored columns rolled across the desert Monday, homeward bound in a swift pullout from southern Iraq. The United States dismantled its VII Corps headquarters in Iraq, the last remaining command of that size.

The U.S. Central Command said nearly half of the 540,000 American troops in the Persian Gulf war have left the theater.U.S. officers said most of the 17,000 troops of the 1st Infantry Division and its more than 7,000 vehicles were moving southward from the Euphrates River into assembly areas in Saudi Arabia for transfer home to Fort Riley, Kan. The officers said a contingent of the division would likely remain for the short term in the newly established demilitarized zone between Iraq and Kuwait until replaced by a U.N. peacekeeping force.

The 1st Infantry Division, the famed "Big Red One," was the first to break through Iraq's defenses during the 100-hour ground war in February. The withdrawal of American forces left in doubt the future of the more than 40,000 refugees who found American and Saudi protection in southern Iraq.In announcing on Sunday its intention to withdraw from southern Iraq in a matter of days, the command urged the refugees to move into the demilitarized zone being established along the 120-mile-long border between Iraq and Kuwait.

The zone is to be monitored by 1,440 lightly armed U.N. peacekeeping troops, who are to be in place in the next week or two, and many refugees fear that will mean their abandonment to the retribution of Saddam Hussein's forces.

Kuwait, to the south, refuses to admit any refugees unless a third country offers to take them. So far, there have been virtually no offers.

Nearly 30,000 Iraqi refugees are in U.S.-occupied southern Iraq. Another 13,000 live in a Saudi-run camp three miles inside Iraq along the Saudi border.

The Saudis have not commented on what will become of the refugees in their care.

Many refugees fled south after a failed anti-Saddam rebellion. Rebel fighters and sympathizers say returning to Saddam-controlled Iraq will mean certain death for them.

After an international outcry, the White House last week committed 8,000 U.S. servicemen to the temporary aid of the estimated 2 million Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam's troops after their failed uprising in northern Iraq.

But the United States has remained vague about any lasting commitment to providing for and guaranteeing the safety of Iraqi refugees - especially those in the south.

The refugees are so desperate that they have been trying to surrender to U.S. forces as prisoners of war and have threatened to sit in front of American tanks to block them from leaving. Meanwhile, the U.S. withdrawal is continuing at about 5,000 a day.

A contingent of U.S. forces will remain in the demilitarized zone until the U.N. peacekeeping force is fully in place.

Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's Central Command will soon depart, perhaps by the end of April, returning to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., where the general will retire, military sources said.


(Additional information)

Depot shipping tents to Kurds

Defense Depot Ogden has shipped 1,404 tents to Kurdish refugees in Iraq. The priority shipment assembled last week by DDO warehouse crews was due to arrive Monday in New Cumberland, Pa., where the tents will be packed on a cargo plane and flown to Turkey, said Air Force Maj. Dean Salisbury. There they will be unloaded and put on smaller planes for aerial drops to refugee areas, he said.