The president of Iraq's interim leadership met with the country's top Shi'ite Muslim to address the cleric's objections to a U.S.-backed plan for handing back sovereignty to Iraqis.

The holder of the Governing Council's rotating presidency this month, Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, traveled to the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, for a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

After the meeting, a spokesman for Mr. Talabani played down any differences, saying the two men had no disagreements about the proposed transfer of power. The spokesman did not elaborate.

On Wednesday, the powerful Shi'ite cleric criticized parts of a political plan put forth by the U.S.-appointed Governing Council on November 15, to establish a transitional government by the end of next June that would draft a constitution and hold elections.

The ayatollah says he wants nationwide elections to be held sooner than the agreed March 2005, time-frame and seeks assurances that a basic law, being drafted to act as an interim constitution, would not contain anything contrary to Islamic laws and traditions.

Ayatollah Sistani is the most influential spiritual leader among Shiite Muslims, who make up more than 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people.