The fighting in Iraq has not entirely died down, but officials of the U.S.-led coalition are already taking the steps to organize an interim Iraqi authority. An initial conference of Iraqi exiles and local leaders is to be held in southern Iraq in the coming days.

The rapid military collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime is bringing post-war planning to the forefront, and the Bush administration is taking the first steps to set up an interim Iraqi civilian authority.

Officials here say efforts are underway to convene an initial meeting of repatriated Iraqi exile figures and local Iraqi leaders from newly-liberated areas within the next few days to discuss the interim authority.

Vice President Dick Cheney said in New Orleans the meeting could be held as early as Saturday in the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriyah, though other officials said the timing and venue had not been fixed and would depend on the security situation in the area.

Briefing reporters, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the meeting would be the first of a series leading to a eventual conference in Baghdad that would formally set up the Iraqi Interim Authority, or IIA.

He offered no time frame for the Baghdad meeting. He also rejected the notion that the upcoming meeting in the south would convey a U.S. endorsement of exile figure Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, as a presumptive leader of the IIA.

"It's not a coronation. It's not a choice of some kind of government. It's an opportunity for American, for U.S., for coalition officials to meet with free Iraqis from inside and outside Iraq to discuss their vision of the future, to start working with local administrations and talk about their vision of the future," he said. "It's not a meeting of organizational leaders or of political figures, it's a meeting with a significant number of Iraqis representing a wide range of Iraqi groups."

Before the Iraq war began March 20, the Bush administration rejected calls by Mr. Chalabi and other exile leaders to set up a provisional government saying that would have disenfranchised the millions of Iraqis under regime control.

The Iraqi National Congress leader, now in southern Iraq with a number of followers, has close ties with the Pentagon though his relationship with the State Department has been strained.

Spokesman Boucher said the U.S. delegation to the upcoming meeting in the south will be headed by the White House special envoy to the Iraqi opposition Zalmay Khalilzad.

He will be joined by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ryan Crocker, who has been a U.S. liaison to groups in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

Plans call for coalition military chiefs to hold power in Iraq for a brief period after hostilities end, to be succeeded by a civilian authority headed by retired U.S. Army General Jay Garner.

The Iraqi Interim Authority would then be phased in to run the country until the seating of a freely-elected Iraqi government.