RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- U.S.-led forces raced yesterday to encircle the retreating remnants of Iraq's collapsing army as residents of Kuwait City celebrated the beginning of the end of Iraqi occupation.
The city's liberation appeared to be only hours from being complete as Iraqi soldiers surrendered en masse to coalition units. Those not surrendering sought to avoid tightening bands of allied armies moving rapidly through Kuwait and southern Iraq to cut off Iraqi forces from any chance of reinforcement or escape.
"I fully expect we should be able to announce Kuwait City belongs to coalition forces by the end of the day," a senior U.S. military officer said as dawn today brought the destruction of much of Iraq's best-trained units, the Republican Guards. "There are very few Iraqis there except for some pockets of resistance we may run into."
Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, attempted to rescue his forces yesterday by announcing in a radio address an immediate withdrawal of his army from Kuwait. But he was unable to prevent the U.S. and other forces from continuing attacks that threatened to decimate the military establishment that has been one of the pillars of his regime.
President Bush denounced Mr. Hussein's announcement as an "outrage" and condemned him for allegedly continuing the "pathological destruction of Kuwait." The White House insisted the war would continue until all Iraqi forces were expelled, or Mr. Hussein declared his forces would surrender.
The U.S. military command said 27 Iraqi divisions -- more than half the total force of more than 500,000 men in and around Kuwait -- were destroyed or rendered ineffective, at minimal cost in allied casualties.
Six of those divisions were destroyed last night, including the Republican Guards' Tawakalna division, one of Iraq's key units of tanks and artillery. Apache OH-58 helicopters fired anti-tank missiles and were followed by M-1A1 tanks firing from a distance.
"We've pounded the hell out of them," an officer said. "We're ready to write it off."
For allied commanders, the successes of 3 1/2 days of an all-out ground campaign created a need to keep public expectations in check. Senior officers here and at the Pentagon warned that the ground campaign was far from over, but they could hardly conceal their satisfaction with the results.
"The war is not over, and we're going to continue to attack and attack and attack," said Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal, deputy director of operations here. Units of the Republican Guards were bTC stopping to fight as they retreated and showed no sign of abandoning their tanks and artillery.
"I would hope that we can cut them off, that we isolate them, and then destroy those that continue to resist," General Neal said. "And the other ones will get the word, and that they'll in fact drop their weapons."
Confidence rose overnight that Iraq's remaining forces were trapped whether they tried to escape to the north, in the direction of the Iraqi city of Basra, or to the west along the Euphrates River. "We're attempting to cut them off," a senior officer said. "We've pretty confident we have those routes controlled."
Intense fighting continued in several areas. Marines battled Iraqi tanks until nightfall at Kuwait International Airport, southwest of Kuwait City, encountering what the military command described "stiff resistance in the real meaning of the term."
But events were moving so fast as to leave the Pentagon unsure whether Iraqi forces remained at the airport and whether they continued to occupy Kuwait City.
"When the sun comes up, the question in my mind will be, will the enemy still be there," said Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, the Pentagon chief of operations.
Reconnaissance groups entered Kuwait City during the night and were quickly able to begin to assert control, officers said. Among the first positions taken was the shuttered U.S. Embassy.
Kuwait's government-in-exile was clearly confident that its return power was in sight. Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the exiled emir, declared martial law for a period of three months, although for the foreseeable future effective control of his country is likely to be in the hands of coalition armies.
Farther to the west, meanwhile, two vast armored armies attempted to encircle eight divisions of Republican Guards encamped on the Iraq-Kuwait border. French and U.S. forces were reported to be wheeling south in the direction of the Iraqi city of Basra, after traveling north more than 100 miles to reach the Euphrates River and take control of a key Iraqi supply route.
As that force turned south, it was moving toward the Republican Guards dug in on the Iraq-Kuwait border as other allied columns approached from the opposite direction, by sweeping north through western Kuwait.
[Tank crews of the U.S. VII Corps battered a Republican Guard division in the Iraqi desert west of Kuwait, a senior Pentagon official told the Associated Press. A news-pool report, meanwhile, said Republican Guard units were setting up new defensive lines west of Basra.]
How the Republican Guards planned to respond remained unclear. They could stay in their prepared positions or mobilize up to three divisions of armored vehicles. General Kelly maintained that the coalition was prepared for either strategy.
"We will deal with the Republican Guards whether they're in their defensive positions or not," he said. They would encounter "deep, deep trouble" in defensive positions because of allied aircraft with anti-tank missiles, weapons that would also be a threat if the Iraqi tanks began to move, he said.
Officers said tanks in the 10,000-man Tawakalna division retreated in stages, firing as they went, but in the end were decimated.
Movement by the Republican Guards was adding to an immense traffic jam of retreating tanks and trucks. Pilots from the aircraft carrier USS Ranger reported the roads between Kuwait and Basra clogged with vehicles, which the pilots bombed and strafed. "This morning it was bumper-to-bumper," said Navy Lt. Brian Bauer. "It was the road to Daytona Beach at spring break."
Figures released by the Pentagon showed that half of Iraq's tanks had been destroyed, along with somewhat smaller percentages of its armored vehicles and artillery. Rear Adm. Mike McConnell, the Pentagon's chief of intelligence, said the destroyed equipment included the following:
* 2,085 tanks, including more than 400 in the last three days, or 50 percent of the estimated total of 4,200 tanks in and around Kuwait.
* 1,505 artillery pieces, including about 20 in the last three days, or 48 percent of the total of 3,200.
* 962 other armored vehicles, including about 40 since the beginning of the ground war, or one-third of the
total of 2,800.
More than 30,000 Iraqis have surrendered or been captured, including 3,000 last night, a number that threatened to overwhelm the coalition's ability to transport them to camps in Saudi Arabia. Saudi officers amassed a fleet of school buses to carry the prisoners but could not keep pace.
Casualties among U.S. and allied forces involved in the ground fighting continued to be described as "light." Near the end of three days of ground combat, a total of four Americans and 13 soldiers from allied forces had been killed, the military command said. An additional 21 Americans and 43 other soldiers had been wounded.
Not yet included were the losses suffered when a Scud missile struck a military dormitory Monday night in eastern Saudi Arabia. According to a revised casualty toll, 28 soldiers were killed in Al Khobar, a suburb of Dhahran, and 100 others were injured, many of them seriously.
Their dormitory was destroyed in an explosion of flame after being struck by the warhead of a Scud missile that apparently disintegrated in flight.
According to General Neal, the Scud's breakup was the reason Patriot anti-missile batteries failed to intercept it. When the Scud came apart, the computerized Patriot system apparently calculated that the missile either could not be hit or was no longer a threat, he said.
One of the ironies of the war was that Iraq's reverses sparked celebrations in Baghdad as well as in Kuwait City.
When Mr. Hussein announced his call for a withdrawal, residents of Baghdad fired weapons into the air and expressed relief to Western journalists that the conflict might be coming to an end.
Mr. Hussein insisted in his 30-minute radio address that Iraq had triumphed.
"You have faced the whole world, brave Iraqis," he said. "You have won. . . . You are victorious."
On the outskirts of Kuwait City, residents ran into the streets and waved their fingers in a "V" sign as allied columns traveled along boulevards.