Maliki's Mosul Offensive

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On any given day just a few months ago, the northern city of Mosul was a noisy place. Sunni insurgents who'd settled in Mosul were keeping up almost daily attacks against Iraqi and U.S. forces in the area. Car bombs and mortars shook the air most afternoons. And at night gunfire often crackled as American and Iraqi troops conducted raids on suspected insurgent hideouts in the dark.

But Mosul, the capital of Nineveh Province, has been unusually quiet in recent days as Iraqi security forces undertake fresh sweeps of the city in a new offensive dubbed "Lion's Roar" and commanded personally by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "We have come to Nineveh to restore security," Maliki said to reporters shortly after arriving Wednesday. "Today, law and order is our message. We want to end the suffering in this province."

Perhaps some Iraqi and American commanders hoped for an Alamo scene in Mosul, the guerrilla movement's last urban stronghold in Iraq. But it appears the insurgents have decided to melt away rather than take part in the "decisive battle" Maliki vowed to unleash months ago when Mosul reemerged as an insurgent haven.

Some 500 suspected insurgents have come under arrest as part of the operation. But the lack of significant resistance among the hardened fighters who had been operating in Mosul suggested the insurgency was offering Maliki and his American backers a message of their own: We fight on our terms, not yours.

Any insurgent operative at work in Iraq now is likely to have multiple years of guerrilla experience, in addition to the formal military training many of today's outlaws got in Iraq's old army of Saddam Hussein. The odds are many of the lesser fighters of the insurgent movement wound up jailed or killed in the past year or so during the surge, when decisive battles did indeed unfold in places like Ramadi and Baqubah. So the remaining bunch in Mosul stands to be perhaps the best fighters on the scene.

Indeed, they have displayed both tactical skill and a knack for survival in their running battles with U.S. and Iraqi forces since late last year. By and large they have avoided freakish displays of violence like public beheadings of civilians, an amateurish, if deeply disturbing, guerrilla tactic. Instead, Mosul's insurgents have remained shadowy, sticking mostly to the kind of lightning strikes against U.S. and Iraqi security forces that mark a professional guerrilla organization aiming to deal blows and survive to do so again in the future.

As such, any insurgent hoping to stay alive in Mosul in the face of a major offensive will be looking to lie low and wait out the operation. How long al-Maliki will remain in Mosul is unclear. But the city's experienced fighters likely have more patience than a Prime Minister juggling two other running battles with Shi'ite militias in Baghdad and Basra.