updated 3/7/2006 8:10:49 AM ET 2006-03-07T13:10:49

Most of Britain’s 8,000 troops in Iraq could be withdrawn by the middle of 2008, the senior British general in Baghdad said in an interview published Tuesday.

The Daily Telegraph, which interviewed Lt. Gen. Nick Houghton in Baghdad on Monday, quoted him as saying the troops could largely be withdrawn in a four-phase process.

“There is a fine line between staying too long and leaving too soon,” the Telegraph quoted Houghton as saying.

“A military transition over two years has a reasonable chance of avoiding the pitfalls of overstaying our welcome but gives us the best opportunity of consolidating the Iraqi security forces.”

Prime Minister Tony Blair and senior government officials have consistently refused to be pinned down on dates for ending the troop presence in Iraq, as Blair’s office stressed Tuesday.

Blair’s official spokesman said there were “all sorts of possible scenarios” for pulling troops out of Iraq but all were contingent on conditions on the ground.

“Speculation on dates for handover and force levels is just that — speculation. Gen. Houghton outlined one possible scenario among many,” the Ministry of Defense said in a statement released Tuesday.

Houghton said British troop numbers would be reduced in both Maysan and Muthanna provinces, with the remainder giving support as needed and continuing training of police and army units. If the Iraqi force succeeded in keeping order, British forces would be withdrawn entirely, the Telegraph quoted Houghton as saying.

The same plan could then be applied in Dhiqar and Basra in about a year’s time, the Telegraph quoted him as saying.

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