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The cease-fire hour for Operation Desert Storm arrived Thursday morning, 100 hours into a lightning allied ground war and 209 days after Saddam Hussein's troops marched into Kuwait.

Three U.S. armored divisions hammered the remnants of Saddam's Republican Guard in a series of fierce battles Wednesday that destroyed more than 700 Iraqi tanks, U.S. officials said.U.S. forces were ``putting the Republican Guard out of business,' Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Desert Storm commander, said of the units known as Saddam's best.

Pentagon officials said the conflict, west of the key Iraqi military city of Basra, is the largest U.S. tank battle since World War II.

It looked to be the last major battle of the war, as President Bush, in a dramatic evening address to the nation, declared that ``Iraq's army is defeated.'

He said coalition forces were suspending offensive military operations as of midnight Eastern Standard Time and awaiting Iraqi compliance with demands for a permanent cease-fire.

Another senior military official said the relentless U.S. armored drive against Saddam's top-of-the line troops had ``fragmented' most of the eight Iraqi divisions and destroyed their communications.

The Iraqis appeared so confused on the battlefield that U.S. commanders ``are wondering where their officers are,' the official said. ``We are predicting the demise of the Republican Guard within hours.'

Another senior military officer said ``mopping-up' operations might be completed by morning.

Schwarzkopf called the engagement ``a classic tank battle ... fire and maneuver.' He said ``our forces are in the business of outflanking them.'

On the fourth day since U.S. ground forces began to push Iraqi forces from Kuwait, U.S. military officers said they planned to encircle and destroy what was left of the 150,000-member Republican Guard in southeast Iraq, thereby stripping Saddam of his last viable military force. More than 100,000 U.S. troops were involved.

``The gates are closed,' Schwarzkopf said. ``There is no way out of here.'

Despite rains that had turned the desert to mud and low cloud cover that hampered air support flights for ground forces, elements of the U.S. 7th Corps and the 18th Corps had been able to defeat at least four Republican Guard divisions in two days of fighting, sources said.

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