Powell admitted UN inspectors were unlikely to find WMDs in Iraq [GALLO/GETTY]

Colin Powell, the first African-American to be appointed US secretary of state, continues to defy all stereotypes, so the former Republican's journey to Democrat camp will not come as a total surprise to observers.

Appointed to office under George Bush, the US president, from 2001 to 2005, he was widely regarded as a moderate voice within a hawkish administration. Albeit a voice that appeared to be frequently overruled by cabinet colleagues.

A former general and professional soldier for 35 years, he was appointed chairman of the joint chiefs of staff - the highest military position in the US department of defence - in 1989. During his four years in post, Powell led Operation Desert Storm in the first Gulf war in 1991.

While demonstrably unafraid of using military force, Powell voiced his concerns about the invasion of Iraq by US-led forces in 2003 at the outset of the so-called "war on terror".

At the time, he called for delays in military action against Iraq and pushed to allow more time for inspections by United Nations officials into Saddam Hussein's alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Just before leaving office, Powell admitted the information he had given the UN on Iraq's WMDs was wrong and that it was unlikely that inspectors would ever find any.

A year later, Powell called on world leaders to acknowledge the security situation had deteriorated and descended into civil war. He also cautioned against allowing Sunni Muslims to be marginalised in Iraq, resulting in a "Shia-dominated regime".

Born in New York City in 1937, Powell grew up in the South Bronx. Educated in public schools he studied for his degree in geology at the City College of New York, before joining the army in 1958.

Powell is married to Alma Vivian and has three children and two grandsons.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies