Washington Mutual Inc., digesting Great Western Financial Corp., said it plans to close 85 California branches by the middle of next year.

Moreover, the company said, additional closures are expected through 1998 and 1999.

The announcement, made Thursday, was expected.

Washington Mutual had said earlier this year that the merger would involve closing as many as 100 branches. The company aims to save $340 million in merger-related expenses by yearend 1999.

Though the branch closings would eliminate jobs, the company said layoffs should be minimal, because of attrition.

It's unclear how many jobs are being eliminated; Washington Mutual has refused to make public its own estimate.

Targets include branches of Great Western and Washington Mutual. Five Great Western branches have been closed this year.

After the closings, $95.6 billion-asset Washington Mutual would have 365 California offices.

Washington Mutual now operates as American Savings Bank in California. It intends to use that name as well as Great Western there until the end of June, when California computer systems are to be merged with those at the Seattle headquarters. Thereafter only "Great Western Bank" will be used in California.

Analysts said Washington Mutual has taken a number of steps to ensure a smooth transition, having learned from Wells Fargo & Co.'s bad experience after buying First Interstate last year.

Analyst Joseph Morford of BT Alex. Brown said Washington Mutual will take its time converting computer systems, tackling Florida in April, Northern California in May, and Southern California in June.

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