White House reels from Woodward book

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A new book on the run up to last year's invasion of Iraq has rattled the White House with the most detailed account yet of the deep divisions within the Bush administrations over the war. Implicitly, it raises the question of why Colin Powell, Secretary of State and the chief in-house sceptic about the war, did not resign once it was clear he had lost the argument.

In a sign of the administration's agitation, top officials, including Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, have publicly taken issue with key aspects of the account provided in Plan of Attack by investigative reporter Bob Woodward, published here yesterday.

Among the most controversial points are the claim that Mr Bush decided to go to war in early January 2003, rather than not making up his mind until almost the eve of the invasion, and evidence that relations between General Powell and Dick Cheney, the Vice-President and arch-hawk on Iraq, were so bad that the two were hardly on speaking terms.

Other allegations are that the White House made a secret deal with Saudi Arabia for lower oil prices before this November's election, and that the Bush team secretly used $700m (£390m) of funds earmarked in 2002 for Afghanistan to prepare for an attack on Iraq. Both charges are being vehemently denied by the administration.

The book is the latest instant history blockbuster by Woodward, a senior editor atThe Washington Post who has long enjoyed unparalleled access to senior figures in the Democratic and Republican administrations for a string of instant history blockbusters. Plan of Attack offers the fullest reconstruction so far of how America (and Britain) went to war last year, he spoke with more than 75 people intimately involved with the events.

The book dwells on the unflinching support of Tony Blair for the campaign to topple Saddam Hussein. After the Prime Minister stood foursquare behind Mr Bush at a press conference on 7 September 2002, an admiring President walked up to Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's then communications director, and told him: "Your man's got cojones [balls]."

Afterwards, Woodward says, Mr Bush referred to the Camp David session as the "cojones meeting". Much later, when there seemed a risk Mr Blair might be overthrown by a parliamentary rebellion by his own party, Mr Bush called the Prime Minister on 9 March 2003 - 10 days before the war began - offering to let Britain drop out of the military campaign. Three times Mr Bush made the offer and three times the Prime Minister refused.

For US readers, however, the most fascinating part deals with General Powell and his fraught relations with Mr Cheney, Mr Rumsfeld and the other neo-conservative hawks.

According to Woodward, the Saudi ambassador in Washington learnt of Mr Bush's decision to go to war before his own Secretary of State. In vain, Mr Powell warned the President of the post war risks. But for all his prescience, Mr Powell carried his protest no further.

¿ John Negroponte, the top American diplomat at the United Nations, is to serve as US ambassador to Iraq after the planned handover of sovereignty on 30 June. He will take over from Paul Bremer as the top US official in Iraq.