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

A screengrab of footage from the time of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that appears in the 2020 FRONTLINE documentary "Once Upon a Time in Iraq."

A screengrab of footage from the time of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that appears in the 2020 FRONTLINE documentary "Once Upon a Time in Iraq."

March 17, 2023

Twenty years ago, the George W. Bush administration expanded its “war on terror,” launched in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to Iraq. 

In his March 19, 2003, address announcing the start of military operations, President Bush described Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s government as “an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.” Laying out his administration’s rationale for the invasion, Bush said that the U.S. military would “meet that threat now … so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.” 

The ensuing U.S.-led war ousted Saddam Hussein, but weapons of mass destruction were never found. And ultimately, the conflict would have devastating consequences in Iraq that would ripple across the globe and span multiple U.S. presidencies.

Since the beginning, FRONTLINE has been chronicling the circumstances that led up to the war, its brutal toll and bloody aftermath, and the consequences that unfolded for years after. That work will continue with a new May 2023 documentary, Once Upon a Time in Iraq: Fallujah, which tells the story of one of the defining episodes of the war, through the eyes of journalists, soldiers and Iraqi people.   

In the meantime, as the 20-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion approaches, explore 22 documentaries that chronicle the war, insurgency, eventual rise of ISIS and U.S. missteps along the way; the war’s enduring impact on ordinary Iraqis and U.S. soldiers; and how the war changed America’s standing in the world.

The War Behind Closed Doors (2003)

Filmmaker 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.

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 Soldier’s Heart (2005)

Filmmaker Raney Aronson-Rath, now FRONTLINE’s editor-in-chief and executive producer, 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.

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 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 Insurgency (2006)

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

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.

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.

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. Read about the ultimate outcomes of the cases featured in the film.

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 “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.

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.

Losing Iraq (2014)

As ISIS burst onto the world stage and seized vast swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, 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 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.

Escaping ISIS (2015)

Using undercover footage, this documentary presented the gripping, firsthand accounts of women from a religious minority targeted by ISIS who escaped the group’s brutal reign, and followed an underground network that helped them escape. From filmmakers Edward Watts and Evan Williams.

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.

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.

Battle for Iraq (2017)

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

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.

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.

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’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.

America After 9/11 (2021)

From filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team, this two-hour documentary special explored how the 9/11 attacks ushered in an era of fear, mistrust and division in the U.S. — and examined the legacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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), 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, Senior Digital Writer, FRONTLINE



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