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FRONTLINE: Once Upon A Time In Iraq

Airs Tuesday, July 14, 2020 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV + Thursday, July 16 at 9 p.m. on KPBS 2 + PBS Video App + YouTube

A view of Al Nuri Mosque where ISIS declared the caliphate in 2015. Mosul, Iraq.

Credit: Courtesy of Gus Palmer/Keo Films

Above: A view of Al Nuri Mosque where ISIS declared the caliphate in 2015. Mosul, Iraq.

The Iraq War As You’ve Never Seen It Before

In the more than 17 years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the country’s people have endured chaos, poverty and sectarian violence.

But today, the Iraq war and its bloody aftermath have largely been overshadowed in Western media, even as ordinary Iraqis continue to deal with the ongoing consequences.

Their voices take center stage in “Once Upon a Time in Iraq,” an unprecedented, two-hour FRONTLINE documentary special releasing July 14.

"Once Upon A Time In Iraq" - Preview

This is the story of the Iraq war, told by Iraqis who lived through it. They share their personal accounts and lasting memories of life under Saddam Hussein, the U.S.-led invasion of their country and the 17 years of chaos that followed — from the sectarian violence to the rise and brutal reign of ISIS.

Taking Western viewers inside the realities of Saddam Hussein’s rule, the invasion, occupation, civil war and life under ISIS, the film tells the story of the war, the withdrawal and what followed through the personal accounts and lasting memories of Iraqis who lived through it.

Iraqis like Waleed Nesyif, who was a teenager when he started to hear rumors that the U.S. was about to invade. Compared to the American movies he and his friends enjoyed, life under Saddam was oppressive, so he was excited about a new chapter for his country: “When I hear statements like, ‘They hate our freedom and our democracy,’ its like—no, we actually love it, we fricking love it. That’s all we wanted,” he says.

He wasn’t alone: “When I saw them, I felt hope,” Ahmed Albasheer, now a famous Iraqi comedian, says of seeing American soldiers as a teen. He remembers inviting them to his house, eager to practice his English, and hoping Iraq would become “a country like America, this was my dream. Actually, that was lots of people’s dream.”

Um Ibrahim, who tells FRONTLINE Saddam executed 17 people from her family, remembers thinking that after his capture, “things would stay good, fine and safe forever.” But that hope would be tragically short-lived as the country was torn apart by sectarian violence, and the emergence of ISIS.

In “Once Upon A Time In Iraq,” this tragedy is told through the eyes of people who experienced it firsthand — from a young cadet in the Iraqi army who recounts surviving an ISIS massacre that killed 1,700 of his peers, to a woman in a nearby town who helped to save the lives of 800 young men threatened by ISIS. A man who joined the terror group himself speaks from prison, sentenced to death.

We also hear from Omar Mohammed, a university professor from Mosul who risked his life as the anonymous author of a blog exposing atrocities committed by ISIS. “It’s very dangerous to forget,” he says of what the Iraqi people have endured over the years. “Because memory [is all t]hat’s left for us.”

As they reflect on the sweep of the past 17 years, the Iraqis featured in the film share insights into what it has meant to survive, and what they now strive for.

“They destroyed a whole country. Plunged it into corruption, sectarianism and war. They did all of that just to get rid of one person,” says a young woman named Sally Mars, who was just six years old when coalition troops entered Baghdad. “But it made me stronger. I learned a tough lesson. I learned the true value of peace.”

Watch On Your Schedule:

Tune into the broadcast on Tuesday, July 14. The film will be available to watch in full at pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App starting that night at 7/6c. It will premiere on PBS stations and on YouTube at 9/8c.

Join The Conversation:

FRONTLINE is on Facebook, Instagram, tumblr, and you can follow @frontlinepbs on Twitter. #frontlinePBS

Credits:

A Keo Films Ltd. production for WGBH/FRONTLINE and BBC. It is filmed and directed by James Bluemel. The executive producers for Keo Films are Andrew Palmer and Will Anderson. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.

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