For the past week, US forces have been bombarding Mosul, allowing Kurdish pesh merga fighters to advance toward the city that, with Kirkuk, is at the heart of Saddam Hussein's coveted oil wealth in northern Iraq.
On each day, the response comes loud and clear: Mosul is fighting back.
Iraqi units stationed there lob shells and mortars at the Allied forces, sometimes surprising journalists who inch a few hilltops closer to the city each day, periodically diving into foxholes when the whistle-and-shatter comes crashing in.
Mosul is offering stronger resistance than expected. That should come as no surprise, say people in this town that served as the border between Mosul and Arbil - a city under autonomous Kurdish control - until the Iraqi military retreated Thursday. Many of Iraq's senior military leaders come from Mosul, and unlike other northern cities, Mosul did not take part in the 1991 uprising against Mr. Hussein.
Mosul is a city run by tribes, and its most powerful, the Leheb, supports the Iraqi leader. Moreover, several thousand Kurdish militiamen who over the years have been co-opted to fight for Hussein - other Kurds call them jash, or donkeys - have no incentive to surrender: They do not expect to be treated with mercy by the bulk of Kurds here, who see them as traitors and mercenaries.
Indeed, there has always been money to be made in Mosul, a city rich not just in oil reserves but in other natural resources and agriculture. It is home to many Iraqi factories and, Hussein's foes fear, illegal-weapons facilities. People of border towns like this one have risked their lives to smuggle goods between Hussein's Iraq and virtually autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.
Those engaged in that perilous profession - and other Kurds who once lived in Mosul - tell dreadful tales of the city next door that hint at why some of their neighbors could fight to the death for Hussein. And amid the bitterness here for the people of Mosul comes a concern over whether the US-led war in Iraq will spark a bloody period of retribution that has followed so many Iraqi power struggles.
"I have seen 18 governates of Iraq, but I am afraid only of Mosul. It is a city full of criminals. For them, killing is like drinking water," says Ibrahim Kohris Osman, a Kalak resident who makes a living smuggling cigarettes and small goods between Arbil and Mosul.
Kurds caught in Mosul are extorted for money, tortured, or executed, he says.
That was the fate of some of the relatives of Azzad Omar Khadir, a senior paramilitary security officer manning the Kalak checkpoint that served as the de facto border until last week.
Mr. Khadir and other officers, sitting in a shoddy guardhouse that provides shade from a creeping spring heat, paint a portrait of Hussein's henchman in Mosul, who controls trade in the style of a mafia don and picks off people at will. He is known only as Abdullah Wahash - "Abdullah the Monster." People here say that he is a close relative of Hussein's defense minister.
"Abdullah Wahash has killed a great deal of people. He is very good at getting things done," says Khadir, a plump man wearing what appear to be freshly minted camouflage fatigues. "He obtains money by accusing other people of crimes and then taking money from them to get released. He has control over who can go to Baghdad and who cannot."
The mayor of the city would not even dare to talk to him because he is too scared," he says.
In a regime that filtered fear throughout Iraq, Wahash serves as one of Hussein's most dreaded enforcers; even polite politicians call him Mosul's main thug. "He will smash your head for the littlest reason," says Mr. Osman. "He doesn't tolerate anyone."
How long Mosul can tolerate bombardment from US forces cooperating with the pesh merga - Kurdish for "those who face death" - is not clear. The Iraqis' gradual retreats could represent a consolidation of positions that will be defended until they are decimated - although others say the city will fall as soon as Baghdad does.
The front line appears to be moving west. A pesh merga commander said Monday that his troops advanced three miles on the road from Dohuk to Mosul, Reuters reported. The Iraqis are desperate to defend the area south of Mosul, which Allied forces are working to cut off. The road leads through Tikrit, Hussein's birthplace, to Baghdad.
"Iraqi lines here are crumbling," says Hoshyar Zebari, who is in charge of foreign relations for the Kurdistan Democratic Party [KDP] "The bombing campaign is devastating them."
Observers expect a combination of Baathist nationalism and feelings for home turf will keep fighters there from giving up too quickly, despite the overwhelming force they confront. The lack of accurate news accounts from the Iraqi regime - only Baghdad television is available to viewers in Iraq - may also factor in.
"The majority of the Iraqi Army corps' senior officers are from Mosul. It will be a major distraction for those people if Mosul is falling. There will be more concerns for Mosul [than other places] for their families, their relatives, so I think that will distract them and they'll have to defend it," says Mr. Zebari.
That may be part of the underlying US strategy. The northern front has been less of a blitz than a slow bleeding, and that may serve the battle for Baghdad well. With Mosul's forces occupied, Hussein must keep regiments there that might otherwise move south and try to defend the capital.
"They cannot endure the power of the pesh merga, and they will surrender," says Dindar Chato Kamo, a 19-year-old Kurdish soldier watching the bombardment up ahead. "It will be good for us. I expect to be in Mosul soon, maybe a week," he says - and it will be a time for celebration.
The hope is that it will not also be a time for retribution. Mosul, like other cities, has seen spasms of violence when power shifts or rebellions fail. But people here say that KDP leader Massoud Barzani has ordered them not to engage in reprisal attacks. Nor will they be allowed to rush into the city to reclaim lost property.
Zebari is from Mosul; he has a house there he left in 1975. He says Kurds will not try to "reclaim" the city as their own, as its population is overwhelmingly Arab.
The fact that much of Iraq's military might originates in Mosul predates Hussein. That, Kurds here say, offers some hope that when Mosul fighters see the tide turning, they will give up. Says Lt. Sardar Khadir, in charge of general security here: "Mosul's people are always clapping with the one who is the most powerful."