By Crispin Thorold
BBC News, near Mosul
The people of Mosul are braced for battle.
The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki, has said that in the coming days the country's security forces will carry out what he described as a "decisive battle against al-Qaeda" in the city.
The Iraqi and American governments believe that al-Qaeda militants have regrouped in Mosul, after being displaced from Baghdad and many other parts of the country.
Just 30km (20 miles) away from Mosul is the line which divides Iraq's safest region from one of its most dangerous.
Security at the checkpoint into Kurdish territory is strict. Soldiers from the peshmerga, the Kurdish fighting force, stop cars and people who try to enter from the neighbouring districts. Few are allowed in.
Among the rare exceptions are some Iraqis who have been injured in the violence in Mosul. In late January there were two particularly bloody incidents in the city, on successive days.
On 23 January there was a massive explosion at a house in the Zinjili suburb.
The Iraqi Red Crescent said that at least 60 people, most of them women and children, were killed in the blast at a house which insurgents were using to store a cache of munitions.
As many as 280 were wounded - they include Mohammad, who was a kilometre away from the house when the explosion happened. He has since had one of his legs amputated and is still in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Irbil.
"It was a very strong blast, which damaged a large area," Mohammad said.
"I was working as a porter when the incident happened. Fortunately I was found by someone who was working near me and they brought me here."
Mohammad was still dazed as he spoke from his hospital bed. After a few minutes, as he lost energy, his cousin Ahmed started speaking.
"Still if you go there [to the scene of the explosion] you will find dead people. They are still finding people under the damaged building," Ahmed said.
"People are still being killed. The terrorists are killing people. We are not optimistic about the situation," he added.
The day after the explosion in which Mohammad lost his leg, a local police chief and two officers died in an ambush near the blast site.
The US claims many insurgents at work in Mosul belong to al-Qaeda
Gunmen opened fire on the convoy of Brigadier General Saleh Mohammed Hassan, which was then attacked by a suicide bomber. Two other police officers were also killed.
A local journalist was with Gen Hassan at the time. He narrowly avoided being killed and is now in a hospital in Irbil with shrapnel wounds to his legs and one of his arms.
"The security forces that we have at the moment are not enough to keep the city safe," the journalist said.
"Now Mosul is worse than Diyala province, worse than Baghdad and worse than Anbar province. It is the worst place in the whole of Iraq."
According to this journalist, the dire economic situation in Mosul is fuelling the insurgency.
"The main problem is the number of people without jobs. The terrorists give people money and then they can use them.
"For five years Mosul has been occupied by the US and the Iraqi military and still we have no electricity, no water. We have nothing," the journalist said.
Ahmed agrees that the situation in Mosul is as desperate as it has been since the US-led invasion in 2003.
"We are really in a terrifying situation. We are scared of our neighbours. Even when we are sleeping at home - we are not able to rest," Ahmed said.
"We want to be able to have a future, to be able to work and to have freedom of movement. We want to be happy," Ahmed added.
It is expected that the major Iraqi army offensive in Mosul will begin in the coming days. Reports in the Iraqi press suggest that three brigades of the Iraqi army will be involved in the operation.
In Mosul locals have been stockpiling food and fuel in preparation for the operation.
All the injured people at the hospital were hopeful that security in the city would improve, but after nearly five years of violence they seemed reluctant to believe that the situation would change immediately.
"The Americans and others have said that they are going to fight terrorists before," the journalist said.
"This is a bad situation. It is hopeless. I hope that we will be stronger to make a good life for our people."