Once Upon a Time in Iraq - brilliantly told, absolutely compelling.

There was no one at home when the bombs dropped. My family were away on holiday and I was in England visiting friends when the invasion of Iraq began in September 2003. Even though both of us were far from the danger zone there is something strangely ironic that has always struck this particular writer about that time ever since.

This is apt in a way because Once Upon A Time in Iraq is mainly about the normal people who had their homes bombed and their families torn apart. Each episode leys out the foundation stone for the purpose behind the series. “The politicians have had their say”, it declares, “in this series the story of the Iraq war is told by the civilians, journalists and soldiers who lived through the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent events that followed”.

From the beginning Once Upon a Time in Iraq appears to be different from most other documentaries on the matter. Through the testimony of a series of people ranging from a heavy metal lover, who was a teenager at the time of the invasion, through to a translator, a university professor, a New York Times Journalist, to a general on the ground during the war. The documentary, interspersed with news footage, mostly from the BBC it has to be said, tells the story of the Iraq war from the perspective of each one of these unorthodox but instantly relatable sources.

Amid the news footage of Bush and Blair and the 9/11 attacks, Dexter Filkins declares, “Iraq should not be connected to 9/11, but it is” Within months of this attack 300,000 U.S. troops are moved into Iraq. The camera cuts to Waleed, a rock loving Iraqi who declares that he infatuated the west. He continues to declare that Saddam and the authorities kept painting the ideals of the west as evil but that he loved freedom. Achmed Al Basheer, another Iraqi growing up under the regime declares a secret fondness for The Backstreet Boys, as he impersonates one of their dances. “Nothing in Iraq pre-invasion that isn’t pro-Saddam in public. “We were made to think that Saddam is immortal. “It was ok to say fuck god, as long as you didn’t say fuck Saddam”.

The camera cuts to the next protagonist, a young woman who was six years old when the invasion happened. She declares that relatives of hers were arrested simply for criticising Saddam; something that is unthinkable even during most oppressive times in this part of the world. Saddam created a police state, a “republic of fear”. At this stage of the documentary the audience is introduced to an older man with an impressive moustache; an obvious fan of Saddam, stating how great Saddam is.

On 17th March 2003 Saddam Hussein was given 48 hours to leave Iraq, the news coverage which accompanies this declaration is presented as something akin to a John Wayne movie.

The interviews are intertwined yet again with scenes from the news of bombed out buildings, cars and homeless people. Waleed, the rocker, recalls “borrowing” a bicycle from his cousin to buy cigarettes when the explosion happens, This causes Waleed to mock the Iraqi military, showing that he has no fear of the authorities. Immediately after these scenes the viewer sees propaganda juxtaposed by each side.

Dexter Filkins, who had also covered Afghanistan states that people became addicted to the longevity of the thing. Waleed states how, because of being enamoured by American tv and film, they saw the U.S. army as “Rambo” and states, “What can these soldiers do in front of ‘Rambo’ “.

At this point the audience is introduced to Sgt. Ruddi Rears a marine who’s role in Iraq is stated as clearing a path for the regular army. It is easy to see that the war has had a detrimental effect on him, as he is seen swigging on a bottle of whiskey before the interview begins. “Killing changes you” he states, at another he states that he got to the point where he could not kill any more, because “there was still humanity in me”.

The Iraq war was of course the latest in a series of conflicts in the middle east.

As a result of the first Iraq war southern Iraq’s felt betrayed because they were urged by the United States to rise up against Saddam, expecting to be backed up by U.S. forces, and were subsequently slaughtered by Saddam’s forces. The narrative states that three weeks after entering Iraq the allies reached Baghdad. A woman who was just a young girl when this happens recalls asking an American soldier if they were ninja turtles (because of the packs which they carried on their backs).

The narrative states that just a few miles away from the entering American tanks, Saddam was rallying his people. At this point we see moustacho again, describing Saddam as a “Martyr”

It is at this point at which the narrative states that Saddam suddenly disappeared. The audience are told that in a nearby mosque during prayers people are heard saying “May God protect Saddam”, but when they hear that he has been toppled they suddenly stop and say, “May God protect America”.

Cut to scenes of mass louting, the destruction of statues. The tactics of the Americans are called into question when it is stated that the ministry with the heaviest military presence is that of the oil ministry. As a illustration of just how much the Americans are losing control on the other hand, an account is told of how a no-nonsense policy backfires when civilians are shot because they cannot read a sign (in Arabic) telling them to stop, because they are illiterate. The marine goes on to state, “I’ve been carrying dead bodies around forever”.

At the end of the first episode the audience see an apache helicopter blow up it’s target; the house of an old man with his family inside. The final line is telling, “The myth that we were sold began to unravel”.

Episode two in the series focuses mainly on Lt. Col. Nate Sassmann, a U.S. Army Marine commanding a battalion in one of the main towns. As we enter May 2003, U.S. troops are seen being welcomed into Iraq, something which is familiar to anyone who witnessed troops enter troubled areas of Northern Ireland after months of sustained attacks by loyalists. Nate Sassmann states that before he went to Iraq he knew nothing about Iraq. In the early days he thought that he was doing the noble thing. Waleed, the eighteen year old working as a translator in the previous episode says that Iraqi’s often mythologised America and how it would save Iraq, this is something which is often in sharp contrast to what we in the west are told about Iraq and the people who populate that country.

After only six weeks in Iraq, George Bush is seen as declaring “mission accomplished”. What is seen on the ground however is a situation where there is no electricity, food shortages and no security; causing people to take matters into their own hands. Sassmann was in charge of an area known as the Sunni triangle. Sassmann himself is seen stating that his mission was “hearts and minds stuff”. Paul Bremmer, the man the Bush administration has tasked with organising things in Iraq has two main things to accomplish; extract Baathists, and dissolve the military. As the programme continues the audience are introduced to Alaya, a young woman who lost an eye during the war; the scars obvious to see. “The war was a catastrophe she declares, ‘we all became afraid and still live in fear”. The girl in front of the camera represents destruction of a country and the innocence of a generation in a way that makes it inescapable to notice and irreparable. As the episode goes on we learn that Sassaman set up the first elections in the country, that of a town council. Sassaman states that voting is “at the core of being human, having a voice in where you live, before turning to the interviewer and and asking, “Does that sound naïve”? At which point you’re left to wonder. Further on, Sassaman’s mood grows darker, “You have to meet aggression with controlled violence”. Controlled violence? Is that the difference between “lawful” and “unlawful” you begin to ask yourself. At one point Rasheed Al Hasmaweh questions Sassman’s mentality and labels him an extremist and killer. Ashley Gilbertson, who works as a freelance photographer states that Sassman is responsible for Israeli type tactics: making everyone in the area carry an ID and resorting to dehumanising tactics. Sassman himself states that they were beginning to have difficulty distinguishing between civilian and insurgent so they started treating everyone the same. All the while there is just enough of a pause in the continuing narrative to provoke the watching audience into asking “Is this right? Is this the right way to go about things?” Towards the end of the episode we learn that Sassman now teaches leadership skills to business leaders.

As episode four commences we are re-introduced to Samir, who had to flee Iraq at the age of 22 because he took part in an insurgency against Saddam when he was 22 years old. He declares that he hates the regime because it has torn apart his family.

At this point in the conflict Saddam has been in hiding for some time. The episode deals with his capture and trial. The audience are introduced to John Nixon, a CIA operative who by his own admission has studied Saddam Hussain for years, “All the best analysts have a bit of the obsessive in them” he declares. We see old footage from what turns out to be the Ba’athist Party conference from 1979, Saddam is seen to be weeding out spies, all the while with crocodile tears in his eyes. At this point the Americans have put a 25 million dollar reward out for the capture of Saddam announced by Bush’s choice to keep charge of the area, Paul Bremmer. At this point you can’t help but wonder if this is to make sure that they capture him, or because they’re getting desperate. At this point we are told by Dexter Filkins that there are rumours that Saddam had planned a guerrilla campaign, the narrative also suggest that the Americans are now looking for a body guard of Saddam’s; anyone who can deliver them into their hands. Cut to a December 2003 press conference of Paul Bremmer as he declares, “Ladies and gentlemen, we got ‘im!” Like a lot that happened during the Bush administration and during the time of the Iraq war in particular this is announced like something out of a Western, as if the sheriff had come along and gunned down they bad guy in the black hat. It’s strange when things are announced in this sensationalist sort of way because it tends to add an aura of disbelief to the narrative. Cut to a scene of George W. Bush declaring, “I have a message for the Iraqi people, the goals of our coalition are the same as your goals; sovereignty for your people, dignity for your great country and for every Iraqi citizen the opportunity for a better life.

Even as these words are being spoken you wonder about the sincerity; you wonder if the Americans know of the can of worms that they have yet to discover. The programme immediately cuts to scenes of several different reactions; “They took him out of a hole like a rat. The poorest Iraqi would even be seen like that”, declares one. One of the younger contributors states, “We used to see him full of strength, so it took me some time to realise it was him”. At this stage mustachio come back on screen, “That was fake, they falsified those images”. The familiar image of Samir comes back on screen, “We used to think that he was invincible, but then we realised that it was him; he’s not a God.” Um Ibra declares, “I am happy because someone is listening to me. We went through so much oppression but no-one listened“. It’s only suddenly when narrator Andy Serkis declares that sixteen members of Um’s family had been executed because one of her brothers had been accused of plotting against Saddam that you realise just how much this moment means to this one person and so many others. “Saddam didn’t just execute my brothers, he executed all of us”, she declares, explaining that they were left with no graves to visit.

Cut to a scene of Bush giving his state of the union address, declaring, “Since we last met in this great chamber the people of Iraq are free”. At this point the viewer is left wondering what they are free from, and what future yet awaits. John Nixon, the CIA interrogator we have met previously describes just what that interrogation was like. “Your leaders are terrible” he would declare and he foresaw that Iraq now was split into many factions. Asked how long he would need to reorganise the country, if asked he responded, 1 hour, half and hour to shave and change and the rest to fix everything. Under Saddam Hussein religious festivals had been banned, but now that they were allowed to take place again, were prone to attack. This is when we are introduced to the more extremist elements of Iraq that we in the west later became more familiar with. We see a young woman who as a child wrote a diary of her daily events, as any child would do. The difference being that this diary was filled with sadness and at one point she states in reflective shock that she drew a picture of a tree with the routes bleeding, “no child should draw this” she states, and she is right.

After some time the programme shifts to what is basically the final act, the trial of Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity. Brandon Barfield, one of Saddam’s guards declares, almost with a tinge of sympathy, “We were basically babysitters”. The strange thing about this period is that Saddam’s popularity seems to wain and then grow again as he is seen to show defiance to the court. As a young fledgling reporter with dreams ahead, this particular remembers the bizarre surrealism that lingered during this time. It was all like a Hollywood film, and Once Upon a Time in Iraq reflects this. Brandon Barfield paints a very strange picture of Saddam that makes you realise that even he, right at the very end, had some humanity in him, “He talked about his wife all the time, and had a picture of her”. There is of course nothing in the rulebook of dictators that says that they can’t love their wives, but there is a strangeness in this fact, that makes you wonder if even he got lost in life somewhere along the way.

By episode 5 you think that you as they viewer have heard it all, but yet there is more to come. As one group of tyrants are replaced by another. Things don’t seem to get much better under the presidency of Barrack Obama, he is seen as trusting Iraq’s new president too much just because he is seemingly democratically elected. U.S. troops are pulled out in 20011 after being seen to defeat Al Qaeda. At one stage one of the contributors declares, “It’s the same guys, they just changed the t-shirts”.

What Once Upon a Time in Iraq does well is that it gives faces to events and tells their story. What it doesn’t to is suggest whether or not Iraq is now a stable country and if the middle east as a whole is at peace; but then again, can anyone answer that?

Once Upon a time in Iraq can still be viewed, (for those who have access) on the BBC iplayer. The book, Once Upon a time in Iraq: History of a modern tragedy by James Bluemel and Dr. Renad Mansour is in all good book shops.

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