SCOTT SIMON, host:

The powerful movement led by radical cleric Moqtada al Sadr has fractured. Al Sadr all but acknowledging that he's lost control. His statements are often at odds with his follower's actions. Despite orders to the contrary, groups acting in his name continue to kill U.S. and Iraqi forces. And Sadr's problems extend to Baghdad's neighborhoods where his militia are increasingly seen as little more than criminal gangs.

NPR's Anne Garrels has more.

ANNE GARRELS: Mohanad's(ph) passion is soccer, and he's coached his neighborhood team to a run of wins. But Mohanad recently received a threat: remove his two best players - Sunni twins - or else.

MOHANAD: (Through translator) A friend passed on the warning. He said, you know this neighborhood is run by Sadr's militia. They say, as a Shia, you should be ashamed for having Sunni players on your team.

GARRELS: Jealous over Mohanad's success, the militia used religion to remove the competition. Mohanad is in despair; these players are his friends. But Omar Mohammad Ahmed(ph), one of the twins, understands there's nothing Mohanad can do.

Mr. OMAR MOHAMMAD AHMED (Soccer Player): (Through translator) Mohanad is a real friend. We are all afraid. Anyone getting a threat from these guys has to take it seriously. This is now part of what we are living through.

GARRELS: Moqtada al Sadr says his movement backs a unified Iraq with Sunnis and Shiites living side by side. But his militia has been responsible for much of the sectarian killing. Mohanad believes the militia has morphed into little more than thugs who abuse their newfound power.

MOHANAD: (Through translator) They simply want to stop any young man who is on the rise, anyone who is making something of himself who they don't own.

GARRELS: In the name of religion, the gangs determine how young men dress. Hairstyles copied from Western rappers are a particular target.

MOHANAD: (Through translator) Penalty, you will be beaten with leather sticks and your hair will be cut to their standards.

GARRELS: The Sadr movement emerged from the poorest neighborhoods, capitalizing on the reference many Shiites have for Moqtada Sadr's father, a grand ayatollah killed by Saddam Hussein. After Saddam was overthrown, young men dressed in black patrolled streets filling the vacuum.

Twenty-one-year-old Sahid Mohammad al-Safi(ph) heads up a militia's squad in the neighborhood of al-Aklam. He proudly says he has eliminated most Sunnis in the area. Now, he says, he's men are monitoring services, controlling prices for food and gasoline. He enforces fasting during Ramadan.

Mr. SAHID MOHAMMAD AL-SAFI (Militia Squad Leader, Iraq): (Through translator) Anyone who thinks we violate their freedoms is not one of us and has to leave. This is our religion.

GARRELS: Militiamen have sometimes enriched themselves, renting out housed abandoned by Sunnis. This squad collects protection money from local families.

Mr. AL-SAFI (Through translator): There is no government, so it's better for us to control our area and defend it.

GARRELS: Sakar Ali(ph), a high school senior, has mixed feelings. On the one hand, she says the Sadr militias have protected Shiites, but she doesn't like them telling her what she can wear and how she should behave.

Ms. SAKAR ALI (Resident, Iraq): (Through translator) They make me cover myself in black from head to toe, including six black socks. They don't accept anything else, and that is not the way I want to be.

GARRELS: She feels trapped in her house. Some applaud the militia controls on prices but shopkeepers say they can't make a living. Similarly, some are glad the militias helped distribute propane and kerosene, which the government has failed to do. But more and more Iraqis complain gangs are stealing the supplies. And Omar Mohammad Ahmed says Sunnis living in militia areas get nothing.

Mr. AHMED: (Through translator) Only Shiite families receive kerosene and gas. Some Sunni families have had to claim they are Shiite. They even changed their names to be able to get supplies.

GARRELS: Twenty-five-year-old Mohammed Habas Hassan(ph), a Shiite trader, is terrorized by the Sadr gangs. He says it reminds him of the old regime.

Mr. MOHAMMED HABAS HASSEN (Trader, Iraq): (Through translator) We are still not free. It's just like the old Baath Party.

GARRELS: And for some on the streets of this city, it's worse.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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