U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talks to journalists during the third meeting of Contact Group on Libya on Thursday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press)

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — As she shuttled to hotel conference rooms in her latest diplomatic swing through the Middle East, Hillary Rodham Clinton was barraged with questions Thursday about the fate of one prominent leader after another. When would Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi step down, reporters wanted to know. And what about the embattled Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh? Or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad?

As the day ended, the questions turned personal. What comes next for America’s globetrotting, highly popular secretary of state?

The queries were prompted by a Reuters news story that quoted unnamed sources as saying that Clinton was considering a job as World Bank president. Clinton’s deputies quickly denied the story, yet it persisted for hours, triggering innumerable tweets and breaking-news alerts on cable networks.

The story seemed plausible: Clinton has publicly said that she won’t serve as secretary of state after 2012 and that she has no plans to run again for the White House. The World Bank post would offer Clinton a convenient platform for promoting favorite causes, such as education for women.

“Hillary Clinton wants the job,” Reuters quoted one source as saying. The wire service said Clinton had been in discussions with White House officials about leaving the State Department next year — conveniently, just as current World Bank President Robert Zoellick would be ending his term.

In Abu Dhabi, exhausted aides watched the reports roll in with growing incredulity. The story had been firmly denied, yet it continued to spread. BlackBerrys buzzed with queries from reporters from around the world. The same questions were asked, and then asked again. Are you sure it’s not true?

Finally, just before 2 a.m. Friday, Abu Dhabi time, Philippe Reines, Clinton’s longtime aide and deputy assistant secretary of state, sat down to tap out the most sweeping denial he could muster:

“Let me address this as definitively as I can, on the record,” he wrote. “The story is completely untrue. To be crystal clear...

• Secretary Clinton has not had any conversations with the President, the White House or anyone about moving to the World Bank.

• She has expressed absolutely no interest in the job.

• She would not take it if offered.

With all due respect to my friends at Reuters, the story is bogus,” he concluded.

From the White House came more denials. “The story is completely untrue,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. At the World Bank, officials noted that it was not yet clear that there would even be a vacancy at the top spot. Zoellick, a former Bush administration diplomat, has not publicly said whether he wants to continue in the job. At a press conference in Norway on Wednesday, he said the issue of his successor “is a decision for shareholders.”

Clinton did not publicly comment on the matter, and aides said she had retired for the evening to rest up for a four-day, three-nation trip through sub-Saharan Africa. At each stop, without a doubt, local reporters will press her on her plans. Typically, Clinton has responded to such personal questions with a touch of bemusement, giving few specific answers as she seeks to redirect the conversation to the diplomatic topic of the day.

The one person who knows her plans best has identified only a single goal that she holds as paramount for her post-diplomacy years.

“I would like to have a happy wife, and she won’t be unless she’s a grandmother,” former president Bill Clinton told reporters in Davos, Switzerland, this year, reprising a line he has used several times. “It’s something she wants more than she wanted to be president.”

Somehow, the answer never quite seems to satisfy. A grandmother, yes. But what else does Hillary Rodham Clinton want to be?

Staff writers Scott Wilson and Howard Schneider in Washington contributed to this report.