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FRONTLINE: Once Upon A Time In Iraq: Fallujah

A man dives into the Tigris River in Eastern Mosul.
Courtesy of Gus Palmer
A man dives into the Tigris River in Eastern Mosul.

Encore Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024 at 9 p.m. on KPBS 2 / Stream now with the PBS App

With this spring marking the 20-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a new FRONTLINE documentary chronicles one of the Iraq war’s defining episodes — through the eyes of people who lived through it.

"Once Upon a Time in Iraq: Fallujah" tells the story of the battle to retake the key Iraqi city of Fallujah from a violent insurgency that was taking root across the country after the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein. In the documentary, which is a follow-up to the Emmy Award winning FRONTLINE special "Once Upon a Time in Iraq," Marines, journalists, and ordinary Iraqis share their experiences of what would become the bloodiest battle of the war, and how its consequences have reverberated for two decades.

FRONTLINE "Once Upon A Time In Iraq: Fallujah"

“What we didn’t realize was, the invasion wasn’t the war. The war was to come,” photojournalist and Pulitzer Prize finalist Ashley Gilbertson, who was on the ground in Fallujah, says in the documentary. As the documentary recounts, prior to beginning the operation to clear Fallujah of Al Qaeda after insurgents there killed four U.S. contractors, coalition forces warned Iraqi civilians to leave the city. But many weren’t able to.

“The people who left had money, but we had nothing,” says Nidhal Aswad Abed, who lived in Fallujah with her family. “They could afford cars and had places to go outside the city. We didn’t have relatives to go to, so we had to stay and ask for God’s mercy.”

Abed’s young son, a toddler, was gravely injured as bombs rained down on the city in the early days of the battle. Over the course of the six-week fight, some 700 civilians were killed. 82 U.S. service people also died, making Fallujah the bloodiest battle for the Marines since Vietnam.

“My son was one of the ones that didn’t come back,” Susie Miller, whose son, Billy Miller, was killed by an insurgent in Fallujah, says in the film. “But in some ways, he is better off, because he doesn’t have to live with the guilt that so many of them are living with, because they did come back and their buddies didn’t.”

The U.S. prevailed in the city at the time. But years later in 2014, Fallujah once again fell into the hands of Islamic extremists. ISIS controlled the city for two-and-a-half years as the terror group took over huge areas of northern Iraq.


“The world moves forward while Iraq goes backwards,” says Nidhal Aswad Abed. The documentary probes how, nearly two decades after the battle for Fallujah, haunting questions linger.

“At the time, we took over the city and we did what our mission told us to do. On paper – it’s a success,” says Christian Dominguez, one of the Marines in the film. “For me? It’s difficult. I hold on to my friends and the ones that were killed in our memories. And you look at the instability of what is going on in Fallujah — I’d take my friends back.”

WATCH: Surviving the Iraq War’s Bloodiest Battle: An Iraqi Mother’s Story (only available on YouTube)

RELATED: Filmmaker on Showing the Impact of War on Humans

RELATED: The U.S.-led Invasion of Iraq, 20 Years Later

Watch On Your Schedule:

Premieres Tuesday, May 23, 2023, at 10/9c and on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel. It will also be available to stream starting at 7/6c the night of its release at and in the PBS App.


A Keo Films Ltd. production for GBH/FRONTLINE and BBC. Produced and directed by James Bluemel. The series producer is Jo Abel. The producers are Gus Palmer, Stewart Armstrong and Sally Brindle. The senior producer is Dan Edge. The executive producers for Keo Films are Andrew Palmer and Will Anderson. The editor-in-chief and executive producer for FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.