MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) _ American troop strength in the Persian Gulf has dropped to about 200,000 soldiers, but U.S. naval forces will remain in the region for years to come, two U.S. admirals said today.

Vice Adm. Stanley R. Arthur, commander of the Navy Central Command during Operation Desert Storm, said the Navy's gulf mission continues to grow.

''Our Navy's continued presence here represents the importance that our country ... places on this region,'' he said during a change of command ceremony today.

Arthur was departing aboard his flagship USS Blue Ridge to return to his command of the 7th Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan. He had been holding both commands during the Gulf War. The Blue Ridge arrived in the gulf on Sept. 1 and served the longest continuous deployment of any U.S. ship during the war.

Arthur's successor, Rear Adm. R.A.K. Taylor, said the Navy will continue to be an ''effective deterrent force ... capable of responding to any contingency.''

Taylor is to retain his post as commander of the Middle East Force, whose flagship, the USS LaSalle, has been patrolling the gulf since the end of World War II.

U.S. military officers said American troop strength in the gulf has dropped to 232,000 from a peak of 540,000 during the height of the war. American forces are being pulled out at the rate of 5,000 to 7,000 a day, the Pentagon said.

Naval strength has dropped from a high of 130 ships during the Gulf War to 40, and from 96,000 men and women to 35,000. But Taylor will still command a powerful armada in the region to enforce the continuing U.N. arms and trade embargoes on Iraq and to keep Saddam Hussein in line.

More than 9,000 commercial ships have been intercepted by the U.S.-led allied forces to enforce the U.N. trade embargo.

Two aircraft carriers remain in Taylor's command, although one, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, has been sent to the Mediterranean Sea off Turkey to protect U.S. forces setting up refugee camps in northern Iraq.

The U.S. Central Command, headed by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, closed its headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and returned to its U.S. headquarters in Tampa, Fla. over the weekend.

The Central Command is expected to open a regional headquarters somewhere in the gulf, most likley in Bahrain.