Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric meets Sunni leader

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BAGHDAD, Sep 27 (Reuters) Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani met the country's Sunni vice president today for the first time to discuss a new initiative aimed at uniting feuding politicians.

Deep sectarian rifts in Iraq have stymied decision making and hampered progress on key laws that Washington wants passed to help reconciliation between warring majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has lost around a dozen Sunni and Shi'ite Arab ministers from his cabinet and has been left relying on a coalition of Kurdish parties in parliament.

Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who heads the Sunni Islamic Party, met the reclusive Sistani in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf in southern Iraq where he lives.

Sistani rarely leaves his home and makes few public statements.

But Sistani sponsored Maliki's Shi'ite alliance and is hugely influential among Iraq's Shi'ites.

Hashemi stressed he had not asked Sistani to put pressure on any Shi'ite group to return to cabinet, saying the purpose of the meeting had been to discuss the new initiative, known as the Iraqi National Compact.

''The meeting was profound and many issues related to the political process were discussed,'' Hashemi told reporters after his meeting with the highly influential Shi'ite cleric.

''I briefed his eminence on the Iraqi National Compact and he informed me he had already seen a copy and read, analysed and expressed his remarks on the initiative,'' he said.

Sistani's office declined to comment on the meeting.

The Iraqi National Compact is a set of 25 political principles unveiled by Hashemi's party yesterday aimed at removing deep mistrust among politicians.

The compact is being distributed to political parties, senior clerics and neighbouring countries. Hashemi said he had asked Sistani for detailed comments on the principles.

Reuters SS DB1837

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