"It's nonsense," said Powell on Monday, referring to a report in the Washington Post newspaper. The paper said his deputy, Richard Armitage, had recently told National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice that he and Powell would step down even if Bush were reelected in 2004.

Powell told Radio Sawa, a US-funded radio station that broadcasts Arabic-language programming to the Middle East, that the Post story related "nothing more than gossip."

"I don't know what they are talking about," he said. "I serve at the pleasure of the president. The president and I have not discussed anything other than my continuing to do my job for him."

"The story has no substance and the so-called conversation that took place between (Armitage and Rice) did not take place," he said.

Powell's comments followed similar denials of the Armitage-Rice conversation from Armitage himself and White House and State Department spokesmen. But like the others, Powell chose his words carefully to reject only that part of the Post account.

Powell promised wife: one-term only

And none of the public denials addressed the basic premise of the Post story: that Powell does not intend to serve a second term as secretary of state should Bush win reelection.

In fact, Powell has told associates for some time that he plans to follow the example of his recent predecessors and serve for only one term, according to informed sources.  

"I don't think it's any secret the secretary intends to leave," one source told AFP on condition of anonymity. "He made that quite clear when he took the job in the first place."

Powell is known to have promised his wife, Alma, that he would serve only four years as secretary of state unless absolutely extraordinary circumstances forced him to stay on.

"This is a difficult job that can really grind a person down," a second source said. "Two-term secretaries are rare and he (Powell) has made it known he isn't that rare."

Moreover, Powell - who favours a more diplomatic, multilateral approach to international relations - has often seemed ill at ease with the more aggressive, unilateralist approach favoured by the neoconservative hawks dominating the Bush administration.