British Prime Minister Gordon Brown flew into southern Iraq Sunday to rally troops who are handing over the last region under their control to Iraqi forces this month.
Britain plans to give responsibility for Basra province to Iraqi forces in mid-December, relinquishing the last of four regions of southern Iraq it occupied after the 2003 invasion.
Soldiers lined the staircases of an airport base to watch Brown arrive for his hourlong visit, offering thunderous applause as he praised their efforts to maintain security in the south.
"We have managed now to get Iraq to a far better position ... we're able to move to provincial control and that is thanks to what you have achieved," Brown told soldiers.
The leader's unannounced visit signals the start of what Britain hopes will be the transition from a military mission in Iraq to one aimed at aiding Iraq's economy and providing jobs.
Britain's contingent of 4,500 troops in Iraq will fall to 2,500 by the spring.