As Biden Announces End of U.S. ‘Combat Mission’ in Iraq, 21 FRONTLINE Docs Provide Context

U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi (left) on July 26, 2021 — the same day Biden said the U.S. combat mission in Iraq would wrap by the end of the year. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP)

U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi (left) on July 26, 2021 — the same day Biden said the U.S. combat mission in Iraq would wrap by the end of the year. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP)

July 28, 2021

As he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House on July 26, President Joe Biden said the U.S. combat mission in Iraq is drawing to a close.

“Our role in Iraq will be … just to be available, to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS as it arrives,” Biden told reporters, describing an ongoing and evolving presence in the country. “But we are not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission.”

Some 2,500 U.S. troops are presently in the country and have been primarily working on “assisting Iraqi forces,” rather than fighting in combat themselves, according to the AP. Biden didn’t indicate whether that troop level would change. 

Al-Kadhimi, who became Iraq’s prime minister in 2020, told the AP prior to his visit to Washington, “There is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil.”

“What we want from the U.S. presence in Iraq is to support our forces in training and developing their efficiency and capabilities, and in security cooperation,” he said.

The Iraq news came as Biden attempts to extract the U.S. from another prolonged conflict begun after the 9/11 attacks: the war in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are scheduled to depart by the end of August.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported July 26 that civilian casualties in that country are reaching record levels in the first half of the year, particularly since May, when what Biden called America’s “final withdrawal” began. Last week’s FRONTLINE special report Leaving Afghanistan examined the consequences of America’s departure.

A forthcoming FRONTLINE documentary, America After 9/11, airing Sept. 7, 2021, from filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team, will explore how the 9/11 attacks ushered in an era of fear, mistrust and division — and will examine the legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how they’ve impacted the U.S.’s standing in the world.

In the meantime, revisit this archive of FRONTLINE films chronicling what has happened in Iraq in the 18 years since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Iraq’s Assassins (2021)

Correspondent Ramita Navai, with fellow filmmaker Mais al-Bayaa, examined one outgrowth of the political instability and sectarian divides that intensified after the U.S. invasion: the rise of Shia militias with ties to Iran. These militias played a prominent role in the fight to defend Iraq from ISIS. But Navai investigated allegations they have been threatening and killing critics and activists with impunity, and examined how they stepped up their attacks on U.S. and coalition targets following the U.S. drone killing of Qassem Soleimani, a powerful Iranian military commander, in Iraq in 2020.

Once Upon a Time in Iraq (2020)

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

Iraq Uncovered (2017)

Shia militias played a crucial role in Iraq’s fight against ISIS. But correspondent Ramita Navai found that some of the Iranian-backed Shia forces battling ISIS had themselves been accused of atrocities, including kidnapping, imprisoning, torturing and killing ordinary Sunni civilians whom the militias saw as ISIS suspects.

Mosul (2017)

Described by some military commanders as the deadliest urban combat since World War II, the battle to drive ISIS out of Mosul, Iraq, was brutal and grueling. Shot over the course of the nine-month battle, this film from Olivier Sarbil, James Jones and Dan Edge followed four young soldiers on an Iraqi special forces squad.

Battle for Iraq (2017)

Reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad went inside the battle against ISIS for control of the city of Mosul.

Confronting ISIS (2016)

An on-the-ground investigation of the complexities of the U.S.-led fight against ISIS, this documentary from filmmakers Martin Smith and Linda Hirsch delved into the conditions and political decisions that allowed ISIS to rise in Iraq and Syria, and the role of powerful, Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq that were accused of abusing civilians while fighting ISIS.

The Secret History of ISIS (2016)

This film showed how, in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda in Iraq leader and Sunni extremist, developed what would become the foundation for ISIS’s playbook of brutal violence and fear. From filmmakers Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser and Jim Gilmore, the film also traced how Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi followed Zarqawi’s method.

Escaping ISIS (2015)

Using undercover footage, this documentary presented the gripping, firsthand accounts of Yazidi women who escaped the brutal reign of ISIS and followed an underground network that helped them escape. From filmmakers Edward Watts and Evan Williams.

The Rise of ISIS (2014)

From filmmakers Martin Smith and Linda Hirsch, this documentary laid out the unheeded warnings, failures and missed opportunities that allowed Al Qaeda in Iraq to evolve and expand into ISIS.

Losing Iraq (2014)

As ISIS burst onto the world stage and seized vast swaths of territory in Iraq, filmmakers Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser traced how the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, its aftermath and the decisions of presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama laid the groundwork for the terrorist group’s emergence.

The Wounded Platoon (2010)

Filmmaker Dan Edge told the story of the men of 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion of the 506th Infantry, and how the Iraq War followed them home — offering a powerful portrait of how multiple tours in Iraq and post-traumatic stress impacted a generation of young American soldiers.

Bush’s War (2008)

Part 1:

Part 2:

From filmmakers Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser, a 4.5-hour special series traced the George W. Bush administration’s self-described war on terror, including the drumbeat leading up to the Iraq War, the claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (there were none ultimately discovered), and the chaos and sectarian civil war that followed the U.S.-led invasion.

Rules of Engagement (2008)

FRONTLINE investigated what happened in Haditha, Iraq, where 24 of the town’s residents were killed by U.S. forces in what many in the media branded “Iraq’s My Lai.” From Arun Rath and Raney Aronson-Rath, who is now FRONTLINE’s executive producer.

Gangs of Iraq (2007)

Filmmakers Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith took a hard look at U.S. efforts to train Iraqi forces during the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

Endgame (2007)

From filmmakers Michael Kirk and Jim Gilmore, an examination of how strategic and tactical mistakes by the United States brought Iraq to civil war.

The Insurgency (2006)

A look inside the Sunni insurgency that followed the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, as the country cleaved further along sectarian lines. From filmmaker Tom Roberts.

The Dark Side (2006)


From Michael Kirk and Jim Gilmore, an investigation of Vice President Dick Cheney’s role as the chief architect of the “war on terror,” his battle with the CIA over whether Iraq posed a threat to the U.S. post-9/11 — and the assertions that led America to war in Iraq but were not borne out.

The Torture Question (2005)

An investigation of what happened at Abu Ghraib in Iraq — and of policies, practices and patterns that brought the torture question to the highest levels of the American government. From Michael Kirk and Jim Gilmore.

The Soldier’s Heart (2005)

Filmmaker Raney Aronson-Rath told the stories of U.S. soldiers who came home haunted by their experiences in the Iraq War and asked whether the U.S. government was doing enough to help.

Truth, War & Consequences (2003)

Filmmakers Martin Smith and Marcela Gaviria traced the roots of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq back to the days immediately following 9/11, when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered the creation of a special intelligence operation to quietly begin looking for evidence that would justify a war to remove Saddam Hussein from power. The film asked tough questions about the George W. Bush administration’s claims that Hussein posed an imminent threat to the Western world and showed how inadequate planning for the aftermath of Hussein’s ouster created conditions for continuing violence.

The War Behind Closed Doors (2002)

Michael Kirk investigated the people, the clashes and ultimately the “grand strategy” behind the George W. Bush administration’s determination to go to war in Iraq.

Some of FRONTLINE’s earlier reports on Iraq — including Beyond Baghdad (2004), The Lost Year in Iraq (2006), The Invasion of Iraq (2004), Chasing Saddam’s Weapons (2004), The Long Road to War (2003), Gunning for Saddam (2001), The Survival of Saddam (2000), Spying on Saddam (1999) and The Gulf War (1996) — are no longer streaming, but you can explore transcripts and related materials online.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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