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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and former Colombian Finance Minister Jose Antonio Ocampo are set to make the first concerted challenge to the U.S. grip on the top job at the World Bank, according to sources.
The two globally respected economists and diplomats will be nominated for the World Bank presidency by South Africa and Brazil, the sources with knowledge of emerging market efforts to find candidates said.
But with the bank's largest voting share and the expected support of most developed nations, the United States is still likely to ensure that another American succeeds Robert Zoellick, who plans to step down when his term expires at the end of June.
Washington has held the presidency since the bank's founding after World War Two, while a European has always led its sister organization, the International Monetary Fund. The United States has yet to publicly identify a nominee to succeed Zoellick.
The deadline for nominations is Friday, and the Obama administration has said it will name a candidate by then.
All of the World Bank's 187 member nations have committed to a transparent, merit-based process to select Zoellick's successor, a step adopted last year to give emerging economies a greater say in who heads the poverty-fighting institution.
Emerging and developing economies have long expressed a desire to break U.S. and European dominance of the two Bretton Woods institutions, but until now had failed to build a coalition large enough to mount a credible challenge.
Three sources said Ocampo, currently a professor at Columbia University in New York, would be formally nominated by Brazil, which chairs a cluster of Latin American countries, including Colombia, at the World Bank board.
Sources said South Africa will nominate Okonjo-Iweala, who served as a managing director at the bank until last year when she left to become finance minister.
Carlos Cozendey, the secretary of foreign affairs at Brazil's Finance Ministry, said both Ocampo and Okonjo-Iweala are "great" candidates and their candidacies signaled increased coordination among developing countries.
"We continue to believe that the president should be chosen based on merit, and it is very positive to have an open competition process," Cozendey said.
Nominations will be submitted to the 25-member World Bank board, which will make a decision within the next month. Any extension of the deadline would require the board's approval.
The decision to nominate Okonjo-Iweala and Ocampo followed weeks of consultations among representatives from BRICS nations - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - and other developing countries at the World Bank board level aimed at finding credible nominees. Board sources said China also considered putting forward a candidate.
Two sources said South Africa's director at the World Bank board, Renosi Mokate, who also represents Nigeria and other English-speaking African countries, flew to Abuja to consult with Okonjo-Iweala about her nomination.
Her nomination was put in train after discussions between South African President Jacob Zuma and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, a source with knowledge of the talks said.
"The impressive credentials of both Ocampo and Okonjo-Iweala puts tremendous pressure on the White House to come up with a candidate of at least equivalent standing," said Domenico Lombardi, a former World Bank board official now at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"This is the first time in history we have a truly contested election," Lombardi said.
Okonjo-Iweala and Ocampo, a former U.N. under-secretary for economic and social affairs, will join U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs, who has the backing of a handful of small countries, on the nomination list.
Sources with knowledge of the Obama administration's thinking say Washington has focused its search on convincing a woman to enter the race.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a leading contender, though it is not clear she wants the job, sources said. Lawrence Summers, a former economics adviser to President Barack Obama, has also been short-listed, sources said. He has declined to comment.
U.S. Senator John Kerry and PepsiCo's Indian-born chief executive, Indra Nooyi, also made the Obama administration's short list, according to a source. Kerry has publicly ruled out the job and a source said Nooyi is no longer in contention.
Sachs has said his aim is to challenge what he sees as a history of political appointments by the White House for the job, and he acknowledges he does not have Obama's support. He has been formally nominated by Bhutan and a grouping of developing countries including East Timor, Jordan, Kenya, Namibia and Malaysia, many of which he has advised.
Lombardi said the test was whether large emerging economies like China would support Ocampo and Okonjo-Iweala, or in the end side with the U.S. nominee in a backroom deal.
The United States has insisted that keeping an American at the helm of the World Bank was critical to ensuring that funds keep flowing from Congress to the institution.
Additional reporting by Kevin Yao in Beijing and; Alonso Soto in Brasilia; Editing by Richard Borsuk, Jonathan Hopfner and Paul Simao