President Bush is sending thousands of U.S. troops to northern Iraq to protect refugees, and he says he might allow Saddam Hussein to escape to another country if he gave up power in Baghdad.

Moved by scenes of dying children and women - up to 1,000 casualties a day - Bush on Tuesday ordered the establishment of five or six heavily guarded sanctuaries in Iraq to lure back hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of them Kurds, who have fled to the rugged mountains bordering Turkey."I can well appreciate that many Kurds have good reason to fear for their safety if they return to Iraq," Bush said at a hurriedly called news conference. "And let me reassure them that adequate security will be provided at these temporary sites by U.S., British and French air and ground forces."

Meanwhile in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Central Command announced Tuesday that its headquarters and its commanding general, H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who directed Operation Desert Storm, are leaving Saudi Arabia on Saturday.

The command said Schwarzkopf was departing along with the majority of the Central Command headquarters staff because the number of U.S. troops remaining in the Persian Gulf theater dropped Wednesday to below 50 percent of their peak level.

At the height of the ground war in February, there were about 540,000 U.S. troops in the region, 200,000 of them in southern Iraq.

The Central Command said Schwarzkopf and his staff are scheduled to arrive in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday.

A field commander said Wednesday that U.S. forces have withdrawn from all of southern Iraq except a narrow border zone, but the remaining 18,000 troops will protect and feed anti-government refugees until effective alternatives are found.

"We're not going to pull the plug until people can take care of themselves or until there's somebody else here to take care of them," said Lt. Col. John Kalb, in charge of a sector that includes the U.S.-run refugee camp in Safwan.

In London, Prime Minister John Major said Wednesday that the allied forces that will help the Kurdish refugees will include British and French ground troops, U.S. engineers and U.S. air cover.

He said the British force would be less than a brigade but gave no precise figure.

He told reporters outside his Downing Street office: "We (the allies) intend to establish a number of camps in northern Iraq. They will be quite large and we will establish them speedily."

The refugee action was a sharp turnabout for Bush, who has resisted deepening the involvement of U.S. forces as he tries to bring home the remainder of the half-million American forces committed to the Persian Gulf war.

"I hope we're not talking about a long-term effort," Bush said. "But in this one, I don't think it has to be long term."

Bush said the number of U.S. forces would be "rather small." White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said, "I would think it would take thousands of people."

Bush said he did not usually disagree with his wife, Barbara, who told reporters on Monday that she hoped Saddam would be put on trial for war crimes and then hanged if found guilty.

However, the president said "the most important thing is to get Saddam Hussein out of there." If offered a chance for a deal that would allow the Iraqi president "to live a happy life forevermore in some third country, with all kinds of conditions never to have to go back and brutalize his people again, I'd have to think about it," he said.

"I might be willing to say, so far as our pressing charges, we'd be willing to get him out," Bush said.

Bush has adamantly opposed any interference in Iraq's postwar turmoil. He acknowledged that "some might argue that this is an intervention into the internal affairs of Iraq. But I think the humanitarian concern, the refugee concern, is so overwhelming that there will be a lot of understanding about this."

The president's action amounts to an open-ended safety guarantee for hundreds of thousands of Kurds who rose up in rebellion against Saddam and then fled in terror when their insurrection collapsed. Relief workers say that up to 1,000 refugees are dying each day of exposure, dehydration and dysentery along the Turkish border.

"We are not going to say to them, `Come down from the mountains; you will be protected,' and then not protect them," Bush said.

His order came amid criticism in Congress that U.S. aid for the refugees was too little, too late, and that the president had abandoned the very people he had encouraged to rise up against Saddam.

Despite the allied promises of security, some refugees in Turkey said they would not return to Iraq while Saddam remains in power.

"You cannot believe Saddam. If not now, after five years, 10 years, he will come back and ask us `why did you do that (the Kurdish rebel-lion)?' "- Salem Botani, 30, said in Isikveren, Turkey. "Bush cannot stay there one year, three years or five years."

"I won't go back," said Hajji Ali, 34, a refugee from Dohuk, Iraq. "We don't go back to this system while Saddam Hussein controls Iraq."

Other refugees expressed hope about Bush's plan, saying conditions in the mountainside camp were terrible.

"I am very happy to go to Iraq," said Yousif Hamid, 24.

On the political front, Secretary of State James Baker arrived in Luxembourg Wednesday for discussions with Common Market leaders on the first leg of another shuttle diplomacy trip in his quest for peace in the Middle East.

Baker arranged evening meetings with Jacques Santer, prime minister of tiny Luxembourg, and ministers of the European Community. Besides the Arab-Israel disputes, their agenda included trade issues and the Kurdish refugee problem in the Persian Gulf.

Baker was scheduled to arrive in Israel Thursday night and will hold talks in Jerusalem on Friday with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and other leaders. It will be his third Middle East peace mission in five weeks.

In other developments:

- Iraq said Wednesday that U.S. plans to set up Kurdish refugee camps under allied protection in northern Iraq are an unwarranted intrusion into its domestic affairs, the official Iraqi News Agency reported.

"Such decision is a continuation of the interference policy in the internal affairs of Iraq," the agency said.

- Iraq asked the United Nations to ease its trade embargo so Baghdad can sell nearly $1 billion in oil and buy emergency food and other supplies for its people.

"The situation with regard to food and basic humanitarian needs in Iraq is currently critical and exceeds the resources available to the Iraqi government and to international humanitarian organizations," Iraqi Ambassador Abdul Amir al-Anbari said Tuesday.


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Unit returns to U.S.

The Utah Army National Guard's 14-member 120th Quartermaster Detachment from American Fork is expected to arrive at Fort Carson, Colo., from Saudi Arabia Wednesday evening.

The water purification team was one of the first two National Guard units from Utah to be called up for Operation Desert Storm and has been on active duty since Aug. 27.

While in the Middle East, the detachment treated water from inland wells and the Persian Gulf for culinary uses by U.S. and allied military forces.

Family members of the soldiers said the group's arrival in Salt Lake City is tentatively scheduled for Saturday.