"We're here now, and we can't just bail out. We have to carry on." Those words were said to me in southern Iraq last week by a corporal, but it could just as well have been his commanding general talking.
With Christmas a week away, last week's national election campaign safely negotiated and a new four-year government about to be installed in Baghdad, Britain's 8,500 troops have had plenty of time to wonder how many more Christmases they might be spending in Iraq. Today they will resume patrolling after being confined to barracks since before Thursday's poll. Among the leading elements will be the Highlanders, based at Saddam Hussein's old Basra Palace and the Shatt al-Arab Hotel, who will be monitoring one of the region's most volatile areas.
"It was the most boring day the men have had for a long time," said Brigadier Patrick Marriott, the commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, who is in charge of British ground forces in south-east Iraq. "We were held in reserve as a rapid-reaction force, but the Iraqis were well able to deal with such incidents as there were."
British civil and military authorities were determined to maintain a very low profile during the electoral process, to show that Iraqis were deciding their own future. But they, along with the local Iraqi army commander, Major-General Abd al-Lateef, also stress that much progress is being made in training Iraqis to handle their own security. Which raises the question in the minds of the squaddies, the public at home and Iraqis on the street: how long until we can begin pulling out of Iraq?
The immediate answer, according to Brigadier Marriott, is not before April at the earliest. Iraq may have successfully carried out a referendum and two elections this year, each time with less violence and more people voting. But he believes the provincial elections, due to be held six weeks after a new government is formed, are more important to southern Iraqis than last week's national poll, and could be "a little blood-stained". Factions that had clashed violently in the past before declaring a truce for last week's election could fall out again. "I would predict a slightly bumpy ride," said the commander.
For now, spending Christmas a long way from home is in immediate prospect, although, as some soldiers told me, there can be an upside to that. "A lot of people come out here with the aim of using the experience to get fit," one told me, "There is a two-cans rule [no more than a pair of beers a day], but some take it further. They won't touch any booze, and they'll train all the time." Thus, some of our troops will have the unusual experience of emerging from Christmas healthier than they went into it.
Since May, a spate of deadly new roadside bombs, using shaped charges that will penetrate armour, have claimed the lives of nine British soldiers, one Dane and two security staff. A suicide bomber killed a 10th Briton in the same period, meaning that more than 10 per cent of British losses in Iraq have occurred in the past seven months.
As a result, British forces have largely withdrawn into their bases. The majority of troops are sited in the desert, far from Basra, and movement around the city is by armoured column or helicopters. Brigadier Marriott, who was second-in-command of the British invasion force in 2003, confesses that things have not gone as well as he hoped in Iraq's second city and only port - however peaceful its hinterland.
A year ago, Western aid workers, visiting officials and journalists could walk the streets of Basra and shop in the markets. Not any more. Now, says the Brigadier, "we spend 60 per cent of our time on force protection" - preserving the lives of the occupying troops.
By now, nearly three years after the war, British-led forces in south-east Iraq should have been well into peace-keeping and reconstruction-phase duties, but those are only possible in the remoter areas of the four provinces in the British zone.
At least one senior British military source says that security for local people in the British zone has improved while it has deteriorated for the occupiers. Some, like Husan Mohammed, 22, a student, see that as a reason for the troops to leave. "Security is good here," he said at a tea shop in Badran, a district of northern Basra. "I want the new government to tell them to leave."
Others, like Sheikh Adnan al-Ganim, an influential tribal leader and head in Basra of the main Sunni election alliance, make the same demand, but for the opposite reason. "The main duty of the multinational forces is to preserve stability, but things are getting worse, so I believe they must leave today," he said. "We'll see then whether we are capable of controlling our own country."
However, not many are prepared to take that risk. Most local politicians, while emphasising that no Iraqi welcomed the presence of foreign forces, insisted with equal force that they could not leave while the situation was so fragile, and that any departure must be gradual. If the intention of the bombers was to force British troops to quit immediately, the irony is that they may well be forced to stay longer, and not just for their own pride.
"The bad guys want us to go, but to cut and run would be the worst of all options," said Brigadier Marriott. Those behind the bombings were very small in number, he added, "but they punch well above their weight, and they have the ability to bring people with them". Hence the need to keep British forces out of harm's way: a large-scale atrocity would cause revulsion at home and create pressure for a pull-out; it might also persuade Iraqis that the British presence caused more problems than it solved.
In such conditions, it is not surprising that the overwhelming priority for those in charge is to bring the Iraqi military and police up to scratch. Military training is gradually compensating for one of the worst mistakes of the occupation, the abrupt disbandment of the Iraqi army. Recruitment of the final brigade of General Lateef's 10th Division is due in the first quarter of 2006.
Getting control of Basra itself will be less easy. The need to restore order immediately after the war took precedence over careful selection of police recruits, and Shia militia members joined in such numbers that the city's last police chief estimated at one point that he controlled only a quarter of the force. The results became obvious in September, when shocked TV viewers saw soldiers leaping from an armoured vehicle that had been set ablaze.
Two members of the British special forces had been seized by Iraqi police. Armoured vehicles smashed into the station and rescued the men, at the price of trouble in the streets and a temporary rupture of relations with the local authorities.
The episode made it appear that security had suddenly deteriorated in southern Iraq, but it is argued that the situation was not as peaceful as it had appeared before, or as bad afterwards.
Not that law enforcement in south-eastern Iraq will ever be like south-east England. There are 65 murders a month in Basra province. The region has been in the front line in three wars - two with the West and one against Iran - and saw savage repression in the wake of the failed Shia uprising after Saddam's defeat in 1991. Smuggling has always been a way of life, and it is hard to say where crime ends and political intimidation begins. Middle-class Iraqis are afraid of creeping Islamisation and straightforward thuggery.
The question is whether the British can do much to reverse this, especially when it is likely that the figures to whom the militias owe allegiance will be returned to power in Baghdad. There is a certain impatience with those at home who gloss over such difficulties of occupation, reflected by Brigadier Marriott's tart comment: "Anyone who thought things here could be solved in a split-second was badly informed."
Rather than expecting dramatic change, it is emphasised that any improvement will be gradual. But when does the burden of conquest outweigh the gains that are being made? We have been in Iraq for about 33 months: how much longer will Iraqis tolerate our presence? The answer to both questions seems to be that we cannot stay for ever, but we cannot go just yet.
As one squaddie put it: "We'll wait to be told."
THE FRONT LINE
DANIEL SANDERSON, 23 From Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. Private with the Logistics Support Regiment
This is my first Christmas away from home, and I feel pretty bad about it. On Christmas Day I'll do anything to keep busy, just to take my mind away from not being with my family. My mum is petrified about me being here, though it's better than I thought. I did think about not telling her I was going to Iraq, but I can't keep anything from her.
JASON MOORE, 29 From Stithians, near Truro, Cornwall. Navy Leading Writer (equivalent to Corporal), works in air movements
This week will be one of the busiest, with so many people going on leave, so I'll probably be working on the day. We're a Navy family, so my mum has learned to deal with it. It's a bit of a culture shock for me wearing body armour and being somewhere which might come under mortar attack. On a Navy vessel you feel very safe.
JAMES KELLY, 37 From Manchester. Sergeant and RAF imagery analyst
I've been in for 16 years, so I'm used to Christmas away from home. You miss the usual things: family, friends, watching the football. Being Scottish by upbringing, Hogmanay is more important to me, but it will be the usual two cans of beer and no more, in case anything happens.
CHRISTINE STEWART, 30 From Halifax, West Yorkshire. Corporal who manages the Naafi at Basra air station
This is my third Christmas here in a row - my family think I'm absolutely mental. But we have a lot of fun. When I get home in March we'll have Christmas, with turkey, Brussels sprouts, the full works.
JOHN NORMAN, 21 From Brixham, south Devon. Private with the 98 Postal Courier Squadron
It's hectic where I work because of all the free parcels arriving from home. We have 1,000 bags a night, some weighing up to 32kg. This is only my second year in the Army. The best thing about being here for Christmas is that we all stick together.