Baghdad: Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani met the country's Sunni vice-president yesterday 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 Shiites and minority Sunni Arabs.

Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has lost about a dozen Sunni and Shiite 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 Al Sistani in Najaf in southern Iraq where he lives.

Al Sistani rarely leaves his home and makes few public statements. But Al Sistani sponsored Al Maliki's Shiite alliance and is hugely influential among Iraq's Shiites.

Al Hashemi stressed he had not asked Al Sistani to put pressure on any Shiite 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," Al Hashemi told reporters after his meeting with the influential Shiite cleric.

Federation proposal under discussion

Dr Haidar Abdul Mahdi [aka Adil Abdul Mahdi] , Iraqi Vice-President, said that the US suggestion to divide Iraq may be adopted in the form of a federation within the frame of Iraq, with two or even five federal states.

Abdul Mahdi said: "We have new ideas that we are discussing to choose the best federal system, such as the UAE model, which is emirates within one country." This is how Iraq was used during the Ottoman period, he added.