*Timing of move would be 2012 when Zoellick's term ends
*Clinton would be first woman head of World Bank
By Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been in discussions with the White House about leaving her job next year to become head of the World Bank, sources familiar with the discussions said on Thursday.
The former first lady and onetime political rival to President Barack Obama quickly became one of the most influential members of his cabinet after she began her tenure at State in early 2009.
She has said publicly she did not plan to stay on at the State Department for more than four years. Associates say Clinton has expressed interest in having the World Bank job should the Bank's current president, Robert Zoellick, leave at the end of his term, in the middle of 2012.
"Hillary Clinton wants the job,'' said one source who knows the secretary well.
A second source also said Clinton wants the position.
A third source said Obama has already expressed support for the change in her role. It is unclear whether Obama has formally agreed to nominate her for the post, which would require approval by the 187 member countries of the World Bank.
The White House declined to comment.
A spokesman for Clinton, Philippe Reines, denied she wanted the job or had conversations with the White House about it.
Revelations of these discussions could hurt Clinton's efforts as America's top diplomat if she is seen as a lame duck in the job at a time of great foreign policy challenges for the Obama administration.
However, the timing of the discussions is not unusual given that the United States is considering whether to support another European as head of the World Bank's sister organization, the IMF.
The head of the IMF has always been a European and the World Bank presidency has always been held by an American.
That unwritten gentleman's agreement between Europe and the United States, is now being aggressively challenged by fast-growing emerging market economies that have been shut out of the process.
The United States has not publicly supported the European candidate for the IMF, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, although Washington's support is expected.
Neither institution has ever been headed by a woman.
If Clinton were to leave State, John Kerry, a close Obama ally who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is among those who could be considered as a possible replacement for her.
Clinton's star power and work ethic were seen by Obama as crucial qualities for her role as the nation's top diplomat, even though she did not arrive in the job with an extensive foreign policy background.
She has embraced the globe-trotting aspects of the job, logging many hours on plane trips to nurture alliances with countries like Japan and Great Britain and to visit hot spots like Afghanistan and countries in the Middle East.
She has long been vocal on global development issues, especially the need for economic empowerment of women and girls in developing countries. She has made that part of her focus at State. Her husband, Bill Clinton, has also been involved in these issues through his philanthropic work at the Clinton Global Initiative.
The World Bank provides billions of dollars in development funds to the poorest countries and is also at the center of issues such as climate change, rebuilding countries emerging from conflict and recently the transitions to democracy in Tunisia and Egypt. (Editing by Kristin Roberts and David Storey) Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.