LONDON — Britain hopes to pull out nearly all its soldiers from Iraq by the summer of 2008, with the first withdrawals within weeks, a top military commander said in an interview today.
Lt. Gen. Nick Houghton, Britain's most senior officer in Iraq, outlined a phased two-year withdrawal plan in an interview with the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
"There is a fine line between staying too long and leaving too soon," Houghton was quoted 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."
He cautioned that the plan to begin withdrawing Britain's 8,000 troops, who are based in and around the southern Iraqi city of Basra, was not set in stone.
He said the timeline would work only if Iraqi politicians elected in the December general election formed a national unity government, sectarian tensions did not worsen and Iraqi forces could handle security.
In Basra, meanwhile, two men were burned to death in their car after a shootout with Iraqi police Monday, and security officials said the victims were British citizens.
A third person in the car, also believed to be a British citizen, was wounded, Police Capt. Mushtaq Kadhim said.
Two Iraqi policemen and two civilians also were wounded, he said.
Britain's Defense Ministry and Foreign Office said they were aware of reports of an incident in Basra and were trying to establish the veracity of the information.
A defense spokesman said no British military personnel were involved.