Tony Blair paid tribute to British troops today as he flew into Iraq for a surprise Christmas visit.
The Prime Minister told the soldiers they could be "very, very proud" of the work they were doing.
Mr Blair flew into Basra for a series of meetings with defence chiefs. Downing Street said the Prime Minister wanted to show his and the nation's gratitude to the 8,500 British servicemen and women in Iraq.
Mr Blair addressed some of the 4,000 troops at the Shaiba logistics base. He told them that once Iraqi security forces were up to strength, they could start returning home.
Standing on a low-loader truck, Mr Blair said: "I just want to say a couple of things.
"First of all, to say thank you to all of you for the work you are doing here. I know it's particularly tough being away from your families at Christmas and New Year.
"I just want you to know how grateful we are for the work you are doing here. However tough it is, I hope you have some sense of how important it is."
He pointed to the 10 million Iraqis who had voted in recent elections.
"The important thing is to try and help this country become the democracy its people want it to be," he said.
That would be done by providing the security which allowed the Iraqi forces to build up their own strength "and then, of course, we can eventually draw down our own capability".
Mr Blair added: "The importance of this is probably greater today than it has ever been. Because if Iraq does stabilise and become a democracy, then the region is more safe, our own country is more safe, because international terrorism will have been dealt a huge blow.
"If we manage to defeat the terrorism here, we will have dealt it a blow worldwide.
"I know how dangerous it is sometimes, because we have lost good colleagues here - and it is tough, I know, sometimes."
But whatever the dangers, "you can look back at this time and you can be very, very proud of what you have done", the Prime Minister told the troops.Reuse content