Surviving the Iraq War’s Bloodiest Battle: An Iraqi Mother’s Story

May 23, 2023

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 were there.

Once Upon a Time in Iraq: Fallujah, which aired on PBS May 23 and is available to stream online now, tells the story of the November 2004 battle to retake the key city of Fallujah from a violent insurgency that was taking root across Iraq after the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein.

In the documentary, which is a follow-up to the Emmy Award-winning FRONTLINE film Once Upon a Time in Iraq, U.S. 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. 

As the documentary recounts, after insurgents in Fallujah killed four U.S. contractors and strung their bodies from a bridge, coalition forces planned an operation to clear the city of Al Qaeda and warned civilians to leave.

“The Americans threw down leaflets for us to read,” Nidhal Abed, who lived in Fallujah with her family, says in the documentary. “They’d drop them at night from planes and we’d find them on the ground in the morning. They said, ‘If you can get out, then go.’”

But many weren’t able to leave — Abed and her family included.

“The people who left had money, but we had nothing,” Abed says. “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.”

In the above excerpt, Abed describes what it was like to be a civilian family stuck in Fallujah as U.S.-led coalition forces closed in and the city was bombarded.

“About a week before they invaded Fallujah, the American army dropped the worst of the worst on us. Not just on Al Qaeda, but on the innocent people,” Abed says. “When we went to look for the bodies of our relatives, we found them crushed and flattened.”

It was a time of intense fear. “We were sitting with our kids, afraid of being attacked any moment,” Abed remembers.

Her first child, Mustafa, was two years old at the time.

“He was very young. He couldn’t understand. When there was bombing, he’d shake,” Abed says of her son. “He’d run and cling to me and my mother.”

“That was,” Abed adds, “before he was injured.”

Abed and her son’s story unfolds in full in Once Upon a Time in Iraq: Fallujah, a vivid accounting of the battle that left their lives — and those of many others — forever changed. Around 700 Iraqi civilians were killed over the course of the 2004 fight for Fallujah. Eighty-two U.S. servicemembers died during the street-by-street, house-by-house effort to clear Al Qaeda from the city, making Fallujah the deadliest battle involving U.S. Marines since Vietnam — and a defining chapter of a war that would continue for years to come.

For the full story, watch Once Upon a Time in Iraq: Fallujah:

Once Upon a Time in Iraq: Fallujah premiered Tuesday, May 23, 2023, and is available to stream on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel, at and in the PBS App. The documentary is a Keo Films Ltd. production for GBH/FRONTLINE and BBC and is 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.

This story has been updated.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Senior Digital Writer, FRONTLINE



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