12 FRONTLINE Documentaries on Iraq’s Sectarian Divide

A screengrab from the documentary "Iraq's Assassins."

A screengrab from the documentary "Iraq's Assassins."

February 9, 2021

Nearly 18 years after the U.S.-led invasion, Iraqi civilians are still feeling the impact of the chaos that followed.

In the new documentary Iraq’s Assassins, releasing Feb. 9, FRONTLINE examines one outgrowth of the political instability and sectarian divides that were inflamed in the invasion’s wake: the rise and prominence of Shia militias with ties to Iran.

These militias played a prominent role in the fight to defend Iraq from ISIS. But in Iraq’s Assassins, journalist Ramita Navai travels to Iraq to investigate allegations that they are now threatening and killing critics and activists with impunity.

“Against the backdrop of a surge in targeted assassinations of protesters, we’ve found that public officials are reluctant to criticize the militias — and that Iraqis say the militias have taken hold of power like never before,” Navai says.

The protests themselves have been across sectarian lines, Navai says. But the alleged retaliation by the militias is the latest chapter in a power struggle in Iraq that has often involved a battle between Sunni and Shia extremists, with outside actors — including the U.S. and Iran — at times stoking the conflict, leaving ordinary Sunni and Shia civilians caught in the middle.

FRONTLINE has made more than 25 documentaries involving the Iraq war and its aftermath. To offer context in connection with the Feb. 9 release of Iraq’s Assassins, we’ve collected 12 that focus, in particular, on what has fueled the country’s sectarian divides, the experiences of ordinary Iraqis on the ground and the evolving role of Shia militias. All are available to stream online now.

Once Upon a Time in Iraq (2020)

Iraqis 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, including sectarian violence that targeted ordinary Sunni and Shia Iraqis, the brutal rise of ISIS and the U.S. withdrawal. Sally Mars, a young Iraqi woman who was just six years old when coalition troops entered Baghdad in 2003, says: “They destroyed a whole country. Plunged it into corruption, sectarianism and war. They did all of that just to get rid of one person.” The documentary is directed by James Bluemel.

Bitter Rivals (2018)

Part 1:

Part 2:

A decades-spanning investigation of how a political rivalry between majority-Shia Iran and majority-Sunni Saudi Arabia fueled sectarian extremism in the Middle East, from filmmakers Martin Smith, David Fanning and Linda Hirsch. The documentary traces Iran’s relationship with Iraq, from the days of the Iran-Iraq war to how Iran has used Shia militias in Iraq to extend its influence — including by taking advantage of sectarian grievances in the wake of the ousting of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who had harshly persecuted Shias, as well as the chaos and insurgent violence that followed. “What the 2003 invasion did was give Iran an opportunity that it could never have dreamt of having, which was to bring Shi’ites into power in Iraq who were beholden to the Iranian state,” Bernard Haykel, author of Revival and Reform in Islam, says in the film.

Iraq Uncovered (2017)

Shia militias played a crucial role in Iraq’s fight against ISIS. But as filmmaker Ramita Navai reports in this documentary, some of the Iranian-backed Shia forces that battled ISIS have themselves been accused of atrocities, including kidnapping, imprisoning, torturing and killing ordinary Sunni civilians whom they see as ISIS suspects. (ISIS follows its own violent version of Sunni Islam.) “Mistrust between Sunnis and Shias seems greater than ever,” Navai says in the film. “The challenge for Iraq now will be preventing this from starting yet another war.”

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 delves into the role of powerful, Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq and allegations of their abusing civilians while fighting ISIS. Smith interviewed Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr militia, who said, “I don’t claim that there are never violations that occur during war.” When Smith pushed then-Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the impact of relying on Shia militias, al-Abadi condemned “any excesses” by militia forces but said: “It depends how you look at [the militias]. I think you are calling them Shi’ite militia. I’m calling them civilians who are fighting alongside Iraqi security forces to defend the country.”

The Secret History of ISIS (2016)

This film shows 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: fomenting sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims; attacking Shia people and holy sites, not just American occupiers; taking advantage of power vacuums and broadcasting beheadings on the internet. Filmmakers Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser and Jim Gilmore also traced how Zarqawi’s successor Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi followed Zarqawi’s method.

The Rise of ISIS (2014)

This documentary lays out the unheeded warnings, failures and missed opportunities that allowed Al Qaeda in Iraq to evolve and expand into ISIS. Filmmakers Martin Smith and Linda Hirsch deliver a revelatory look at how ISIS’ growth was amplified by the sidelining of Sunni leaders and the crackdown on Sunni protests by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after the Obama administration’s withdrawal of troops. The film traces how, by the time Americans left Iraq in 2011, Al Qaeda in Iraq had been severely reduced but soon rose up in a new and powerful form, fueled by “a collection of very hardened killers … that the United States didn’t manage to kill during the war,” says journalist Dexter Filkins.

Losing Iraq (2014)

As ISIS burst onto the world stage and seized vast swaths of territory in Iraq in 2014, filmmakers Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser traced how the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, its aftermath and the decisions of two U.S. presidents laid the groundwork for the terrorist group’s emergence. Among other things, the film traces how, in the wake of the ousting of Saddam Hussein, fateful orders by the Bush administration to purge members of Hussein’s Baath party from the Iraqi government and to dissolve the Iraqi army would leave thousands of angry, jobless and disaffected Sunnis, a pool from which insurgents would recruit. The documentary also examines how the U.S. troop withdrawal and President Obama’s decision to entrust Iraq’s future to Nouri al-Maliki helped create an environment where ISIS could thrive.

Bush’s War (2008)

Part 1:

Part 2:

From filmmakers Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser, a 4.5-hour special series traces the Bush administration’s self-described war on terror, including the drumbeat leading up to the Iraq War and the chaos and sectarian civil war that followed the U.S.-led invasion. “We had no military strategy to defeat the insurgency,” a former U.S. Army vice chief of staff says in the film. By 2006, the violence had dramatically worsened. “Nobody could control it,” an Iraqi government spokesman says. “When the state failed to protect Shia neighborhoods from the growing attacks, a lot of Shia started to argue that: ‘Look, you’re not protecting us. You’re not even protecting the holy shrines. We cannot rely on you.’ And I think that was the turning point when violence increased and the militias amongst the Shias became unruly.”

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. occupation of Iraq, revealing how coalition-trained troops had been infiltrated by various sectarian militias. They also found that, because the army was unable to stop Sunni insurgent attacks, some people had turned to Shia militias for protection. Smith questioned then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said he disagreed with the Bush administration on how to address the militias: “We think that military action is not a suitable method to confront terrorism, militias and secret organizations.”

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 film includes a look at how a 2006 Al Qaeda in Iraq attack on one of the country’s most holy Shia sites unleashed a tidal wave of sectarian violence and a desire for retribution by Shia militias.

The Insurgency (2006)

A look inside the Sunni insurgency that followed the U.S. occupation of Iraq, as the country cleaved further along sectarian lines. The investigation by Tom Roberts included special access to insurgent leaders and commanders of Iraqi and U.S. military units battling for control of the country, as well as detailed analysis from journalists who risked their lives to meet and report on insurgent leaders and their foot soldiers.

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 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. L. Paul Bremer, then the top U.S. civilian leader in Iraq, insisted in the film that the invasion had been a success: “By theological, moral, political terms, if ever a three-week war ever brought about such enormous benefits to 25 million people, this was the war.”

FRONTLINE has covered Iraq in many more documentaries over the past 20 years, including: Iraq’s Secret Sex Trade (2019), Mosul (2017), Battle for Iraq (2017), Hunting ISIS (2017), Escaping ISIS (2015), Secrets, Politics and Torture (2015), The Wounded Platoon (2010), Rules of Engagement (2008), The Lost Year in Iraq (2006), The Torture Question (2005), The Dark Side (2006), The Soldier’s Heart (2005),  Beyond Baghdad (2004), The Invasion of Iraq (2004), Chasing Saddam’s Weapons (2004), The Long Road to War (2003), The War Behind Closed Doors (2002) and Gunning for Saddam (2001).

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Senior Digital Writer, FRONTLINE



More Stories

How Russia’s Press Freedom has Deteriorated Over the Decades Since Putin Came to Power
FRONTLINE takes a closer look at the different tactics that President Vladimir Putin and the government have used to clamp down on journalists in Russia, and the impact it’s had on press freedom since he came to power.
September 26, 2023
FRONTLINE's New Season Is Here
A message from FRONTLINE’s Editor-in-Chief & Executive Producer, Raney Aronson-Rath, about what you can expect in the weeks ahead.
September 26, 2023
A New Bedford Teenager’s 21-Hour Days
How a migrant teen tried to juggle going to high school and working overnights at a seafood processor.
September 20, 2023
The Flaws in the Systems to Protect Migrant Teens
A patchwork of state and federal of state and federal agencies are tasked with protecting migrant teen workers from exploitation, but they rely on approaches to uncovering violations that regulators themselves acknowledge are flawed.
September 19, 2023