By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/27/2004 7:34:54 PM ET 2004-08-27T23:34:54

Thousands of peaceful Shiite Muslims on Friday reclaimed the Imam Ali mosque from militants loyal to maverick cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who called on his followers to lay down their arms.

But while al-Sadr's voice echoed from the mosque's speakers, and some militiamen were seen turning in their guns, the nascent peace deal could spell more trouble for the new Iraqi government and U.S. military.

Shiite force
After brokering an agreement to end the Najaf uprising, Iranian-born Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has become the most powerful man in Iraq.

Al-Sistani, 73, has consolidated power in an area he wants to turn into a Shiite state within a state, with the sacred Imam Ali Shrine at its center.

With Iraq's national elections just a few months away in January, al-Sistani has positioned himself as a kingmaker, who acts independently of the new Iraqi government and the U.S. military.

Al-Sistani, who commands the loyalty of millions of Shiites and supports a democratic Iraq, is considered a moderate. Nonetheless, his unchecked influence is troublesome.

Young cleric
Al-Sadr, the young cleric, has gone free — even though he is under indictment for murdering a rival cleric in Najaf last year.

Slideshow: Aftermath

Announcing the peace deal early Friday morning, a spokesman for the new Iraqi government said al-Sadr is a "free man." But under Iraq's interim judicial system, the caretaker government cannot interfere with an arrest order or indictment.

"The charges are still valid," says Zuhair al-Maliky, a leading Iraqi judge.

And the peace agreement brokered by al-Sistani already looks like a repeat of a deal in May. Then, too, al-Sadr was allowed to retreat and keep his Mehdi army. The militia spent much of a two-month lull in fighting stockpiling weapons.

More trouble
Few believe either al-Sadr or his militia is gone for good.

"I'm afraid unless and until al-Sadr is neutralized and his Mehdi army disbanded, we are going to get more trouble from him in the future," said M.J. Gohel, a London-based Middle East analyst.

In Najaf on Friday, hard-core militants simply blended into the crowds and returned to their day jobs — as shopkeepers, taxi drivers and teachers. But they have apparently not left the mosque for good.

"We are victorious," one fighter said. "It's obvious, and the people coming to Najaf know it. We will do as we are told by (al-Sadr), and we wish the best for Iraq."

NBC's Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Iraq.

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