Powell plans to step down early

WASHINGTON - Strenuously denying any rift with the new administration, General Colin Powell none the less confirmed yesterday he wants to step down early as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and tantalisingly kept alive talk that he is planning a political career, writes Rupert Cornwell.

The latest uncertainty over the future of America's most popular and politically powerful soldier was kindled by a front-page article in the New York Times. It quoted 'associates' of Gen Powell as saying that he was so exasperated by Mr Clinton's insistence on homosexuals in the military and on further deep defence cuts that he wanted to retire before his term officially expires on 30 September.

Yesterday Gen Powell did the round of the television talk shows to insist that this was not so and to proclaim his loyalty to the new administration. Neither he nor the Pentagon was 'in a blue funk'or even disgruntled at the President's plans for the military.

Gen Powell said he had a 'fine relationship' with Mr Clinton and Les Aspin, the new Defense Secretary. He had first expressed his desire for early retirement to Mr Aspin's Republican predecessor, Dick Cheney.

But his unhappiness with the slant of Mr Clinton's policies is an open secret. Later this week he is due to make public Pentagon plans for eliminating waste and duplication in the armed forces which fall far short of the new President's goals. Once again yesterday he acknowledged his 'reservations' about the entry of homosexuals into the military.

Most intriguing of all are the subsequent plans of Gen Powell, mentioned last year as a possible Secretary of State in the Clinton administration. At present he is a career soldier, unaffiliated to either party. 'At the moment,' he declared, 'I harbour no political ambitions.' But then, 40 or 50 years ago, General Dwight Eisenhower was saying much the same.

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