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.