RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- With most of Iraq's army destroyed, and Kuwait City liberated from Iraqi control, U.S. and Iraqi tank forces skirmished today up to the deadline offered by President Bush for a tentative cease-fire.
Scattered fighting, pressed by the U.S.-led coalition, continued, although the U.S. military command said there was little of Iraq's army left to fight. The White House announced an 8 a.m. deadline (midnight EST) for the coalition to suspend its offensive.
["At 0800 hours Riyadh time, offensive operations ceased," said Navy Capt. Ron E. Wildermuth, director of the U.S. military's Joint Information Bureau in the Saudi capital, according to the Associated Press.
[A senior U.S. military source said Iraqi soldiers would not be attacked if they approached U.S. positions peacefully, the AP reported. Iraqi forces would also be allowed to retreat -- even with their weapons -- but "if they take offensive action, then we're going to take whatever it takes to protect the forces," he said.]
By this morning, 40 of the 42 Iraqi divisions that had been deployed to occupy Kuwait were shattered, the command said, leaving only isolated tanks and other armor. "There are remnants of about 1 1/2 , maybe two divisions," a senior officer said. "We're convinced we've destroyed the rest."
Mr. Bush issued the offer to suspend fighting at 4 a.m. today (9 p.m. yesterday EST).
Iraq was given up to 48 hours to designate representatives to meet with the allied command to agree to terms for making the cease-fire permanent.
Coalition forces fought without any apparent slackening up to the time of the cease-fire. Allied aircraft attacked remaining Iraqi armor, while strikes were also carried out against targets inside Iraq.
In the last ground fighting, U.S. tanks were pursing the remnants of two to three divisions of Republican Guard tanks near the Iraqi city of Basra, units that had tried to shoot their way past armor and helicopters that tightened a vise around southern Iraq and Kuwait.
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of all coalition forces, described the duel as "a classic tank battle," as the Republican Guards stationed on the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border maintained sporadic fire while trying to outmaneuver U.S. forces and flee.
By all accounts, the guard divisions were the last effective Iraqi force left four days after the coalition launched its ground campaign.
At least 50,000 Iraqi soldiers were prisoners of war, while the number of deaths among Iraq's 500,000-member army in Kuwait was described as "very, very large."
Iraqi casualties -- killed and wounded -- could number in the hundreds of thousands, based on the military command's report that many Iraqi units lost as many as half their men during the three-week allied bombing campaign.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein searched for a way to rescue his army and ensure his own survival. The White House and U.S. allies rejected Iraq's initial offer yesterday for a cease-fire and set stiffer terms of their own.
General Schwarzkopf said his mission went beyond forcing Iraq out of Kuwait, to include the destruction of Iraq's capabilities of launching offensives. His goal, his said, was "to put the Republican Guards out of business."
By midmorning yesterday, armies from nine countries, including the United States, entered Kuwait City in force to be welcomed as liberators by cheering Kuwaitis.
By the end of the day, coalition forces completed a ring of armor around the emirate to trap inside the remnants of Iraq's army. "The gate," General Schwarzkopf declared, "is closed."
Allied armies planned to search for Iraqis accused of committing atrocities against Kuwaiti civilians, while General Schwarzkopf was the first senior commander to lend credence to reports that retreating Iraqi soldiers took Kuwaiti civilians with them as hostages.
"I don't think there is any doubt there was a very, very large number of young Kuwaitis, males, taken out of that city," he said.
As outlined by General Schwarzkopf and other senior officers, the 1st Marine Division gained control of Kuwait International Airport and controlled access to the city from the south. The 2nd Marine Division performed the same function on the city's west.
Army airborne units were northwest of the city and closing in. British and U.S. armor guarded the emirate's northern border, while U.S. and French forces held positions in southern Iraq.
Higher casualties were reported among U.S. forces, but the totals were described by General Schwarzkopf as "almost miraculous."
A total of 28 Americans have been killed in ground combat, raising the number of U.S. combat deaths since the war began to 79.
An additional 213 Americans have been wounded, including 89 in the ground campaign. Forty-four are listed as missing in action.
U.S. forces were blamed for the deadliest incident to date involving British troops.
Nine British soldiers were killed Tuesday when their armored vehicles were mistakenly attacked by at least one U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt, a jet used to strike at tanks and artillery.
Iraqi forces were reduced to a small remnant of the armies that occupied Kuwait for six months. Figures released by General Schwarzkopf showed that Iraq's losses included:
* At least 3,008 tanks, and perhaps as many as 3,700, out of a total of 4,280.
* 2,140 artillery pieces, out of a total of 3,110.
* 1,856 armored vehicles, out of a total of 2,870.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney ridiculed the Iraqi president. He said he could not "think of a decision that [Mr. Hussein] made right in the last several months."
"Saddam Hussein is one of history's biggest losers," Mr. Cheney said to delighted laughter and applause at an American Legion convention.
Turning Mr. Hussein's own description of the Persian Gulf war against the Iraqi president, Mr. Cheney quipped, "It looks like what's happened is that the mother of all battles has turned into the mother of all retreats."