Tony Blair flew into Iraq yesterday, promising democracy. But, outside the ring of security that escorted him, another day of gruesome violence was unfolding - including a rocket attack on a US base in Mosul that claimed at least 24 lives.
And, against a backdrop of continuing carnage, The Independent has learned a cross-party group of MPs has returned from Iraq convinced British troops may have to be deployed there for at least another 10 years.
Unlike the Prime Minister, the Commons Defense Select Committee was unable to visit Baghdad because the security situation was too dangerous.
One senior member of the committee said: "It will take 10 to 15 years at least [before troops can be fully withdrawn]. It is another Cyprus. The Iraqis just cannot cope with the security situation and won't be able to for years."
As Mr Blair was proclaiming Britain would stay the course, a bloody illustration of the dangers encountered by US and British troops was playing out in the northern city of Mosul.
At about noon yesterday, insurgents hit a dining hall tent at a US base, killing at least two dozen US and Iraqi soldiers and contractors and injuring 60. Amid the screaming and smoke that followed, quick-thinking soldiers turned their lunch tables upside down, placed the wounded on them and carried them to the car park.
At a press conference with the Iraqi interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, Mr Blair declared that Britain was not a "nation of quitters". He was speaking after becoming the first foreign head of government to visit Iraq since the installation of the interim government in June, and the first British premier to go to Baghdad since Winston Churchill.
Mr Blair said that he would not be deterred by the recent and lethal wave of suicide bombings. He declared: "What I feel is that the danger people are facing is coming from the insurgents who are trying to destroy the possibility of the country having democracy. Where do we stand in that fight? On the side of democracy.''
Asked how he felt about his entry under maximum security, 20 months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Mr Blair acknowledged: "Security is very heavy. You can feel the sense of danger, people live in here.''
But he added: "What I feel more than anything else is coming from the terrorists trying to stop this country becoming a democracy.''
Congratulating Mr Allawi, United Nations personnel and other international staff for working towards next month's elections, Mr Blair added: "I just feel that people should understand how precious what is being created here is.''
He added: "Whatever people feel about the conflict, we British are not a nation of quitters. What is obvious to me is the Iraqi people are not going to quit on the task either. They are going to see it through.''
Officially, the Government has continued to raise hopes that normality is returning to Iraq with the clear implication that after the UN mandate runs out with more elections in December next year, the foreign troops may start to be withdrawn.
But MPs who have visited Iraq say such hopes are wildly optimistic. Mike Gapes, a Labour MP on the committee, used a pre-Christmas debate in the Commons yesterday to warn it could "take years" before British troops could be withdrawn, in spite of the progress he claimed he saw in Iraq.
Mr Gapes said: "My assessment is just as in Kosovo and Bosnia, we are not talking about a commitment of one or two years, but several years. We have to honestly say that we started this business and we have to see it through."
A Tory member of the committee, Richard Ottaway, said: "There will need to be a continuing commitment from foreign forces for 10 years at least." An anti-war Labour MP Alice Mahon said: "I don't think there is any hiding place from this. The Prime Minister is there today but there is bloody chaos in Iraq."
Later, on a visit to the Shaiba army base in Basra the Prime Minister climbed on a table to tell about 1,000 assembled British troops: "A big thank you to you all. I know you are going to be away from your family and loved ones over Christmas. I am sorry about that but, my God, it's a job worth doing.'' Mr Blair added that all the troops could be "very proud of what you are doing''.
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