RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Ending its gulf war occupation of Iraq, the United States began moving the last of its troops out of the Euphrates River Valley and into a buffer zone along the Iraq-Kuwait border yesterday, U.S. military officials announced.
The estimated 40,000 U.S. combat troops who until now remained in Iraq started withdrawing around 4 p.m. local time, signaling the end of 45 days of occupation, the U.S. Central Command in Riyadh said.
Thousands of Iraqi civilians who sought protection from U.S. troops will also be allowed to relocate in the buffer zone, which will be controlled by the United Nations, Central Command spokesmen said.
The pullout from the sparsely populated desert and tiny towns of southern Iraq follows Baghdad's formal acceptance Thursday of a United Nations cease-fire ending the Persian Gulf war. The speed of the pullout appears to reaffirm the Bush administration's determination to keep out of further, potentially deadly entanglements in Iraq's civil turmoil.
Once the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is completed, Central Command headquarters is expected to shut down. Overall U.S. troop strength, meanwhile, dropped below 300,000 yesterday, down from a wartime high of 540,000.
Nevertheless, U.S. warplanes will continue to fly combat patrol missions to protect the troops as long as they are on the ground in Iraq, officials said.
Fewer than half the troops now withdrawing from southern Iraq will move into the border demilitarized zone and remain there until a U.N.-peacekeeping contingent is in place. The latter process began Saturday and is expected to take at least two weeks, officials said.
Most of the troops now pulling out of the occupied zone will continue on to Saudi Arabia for immediate deployment home, military officials said.
"The significance of this is we are pulling out of Iraq," Lt. Col. Mike Gallagher, spokesman for the Central Command, said. He added that the move into the demilitarized zone would take a "few days."
The border buffer is an area 10 miles wide, 6 miles of it on the Iraqi side of the frontier and 3 miles on the Kuwaiti side.
Tens of thousands of U.S. troops have occupied roughly 15 percent of Iraq, taking up positions in the Euphrates River Valley south of Safwan, since defeating the army of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
In announcing the withdrawal, U.S. officials sought to allay fears that an estimated 30,000 Iraqi civilians who flocked to the care of U.S. soldiers might be abandoned.
Many of the sick and hungry refugees, who fled fighting between government troops and pro-Shiite rebels, have said they feared reprisals from Mr. Hussein's regime.
Most of the refugees will be allowed to move into the U.N.-controlled area, and withdrawing troops are offering to help them relocate, the Central Command said.
News of the U.S. pullout was also made public in Washington by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who confirmed that the withdrawal includes the refugees.
"The president gave instructions, which we conveyed to General Schwarzkopf yesterday, to withdraw U.S. forces from the Euphrates area, from that area of southern Iraq that we've been occupying, and to withdraw to the buffer zone that is specified in the cease-fire resolution," Mr. Cheney said in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press,"
He added that refugees who do not want to remain in Iraq will accompany the troop withdrawal "to make certain that they are inside the buffer zone themselves."
"We are not going to leave refugees to the tender mercies of the Iraqis," Mr. Cheney said.
[Also yesterday, in the Bush administration's first explicit acknowledgment that it might have misjudged the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft said that Iraq's brutal attack against the Kurds in northern Iraq took the White House by surprise.
["We did anticipate that there would be a lot of chaos and that the winning of the war would not solve the problems of that region by any stretch of the imagination," Mr. Scowcroft said on ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley."
[But, he added: "One of the things perhaps we did not anticipate was the severity of Saddam Hussein's attack against the Kurds, with possibly the intention of solving his Kurdish problem by driving them out."]
Central Command spokesman refused to say how many troops would be left in the buffer zone, but a top-ranking military source said a division-sized force of about 10,000 to 15,000 men would stay behind.