Saif al-azzawi, For The Straits Times

Cry, my beloved country, Iraq

Iraqi mourners at the funeral of members of the Shi'ite militia Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigade) who died fighting alongside government forces against ISIS fighters, in the southern city of Basra on Sept 4. The writer says the Iraqi tragedy makes him
Iraqi mourners at the funeral of members of the Shi'ite militia Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigade) who died fighting alongside government forces against ISIS fighters, in the southern city of Basra on Sept 4. The writer says the Iraqi tragedy makes him feel as if he is experiencing a death in the family.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

When people ask me how I feel about the latest events in Iraq, I tell them I feel sad.

All these people - both Americans and Iraqis - have died since 2003 for nothing.

As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgency unfolds, I'm mourning not just those who have died over the past decade, but for a country that I haven't been able to recognise for a very long time.

I grew up in Baghdad in a middle-class family. My father served in the Iraqi Air Force; my mother was a maths teacher; my siblings and I all attended college. I grew up reading Superman and Batman comics, playing with Legos, and swimming at the fancy clubs where my parents were members.

I was 12 during the first Gulf War in 1990. Until then, I never heard a mosque call for prayer. I almost never saw a woman covering her hair with a hijab. My mum wore make-up, skirts, blouses with shoulder pads, and bermuda shorts.

Since moving to Los Angeles in 2009, I've realised that most Americans don't understand that Iraq used to be a Westernised, secular country with an excellent education system and great health care. Iraq was rich - not the richest, but rich.

Of course, Iraq is not like this today.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait, 24 years ago last month, the United States destroyed most of Iraq's infrastructure during the Persian Gulf War. Bridges were bombed, along with power stations, railroads, dams and oil refineries.

I remember that we would turn on the tap, and barely any water would come out.

In order to take showers, we had to rely on water tanks on the roof, which we filled with hoses. We also had limited electricity. Sleeping became difficult. You would wake up, sweating, in the middle of the night.

In 1990, an embargo was imposed, which prohibited Iraq from exporting oil. Iraqis suddenly found themselves poor. People's values changed. Robberies increased. If you parked your car by the street - even for just three minutes - you risked having your hubcaps stolen.

Neither of the US wars changed life in Iraq the way the American government had intended. I think the US wanted Iraqis to revolt against Saddam Hussein and depose him. That wasn't going to happen.

For countless generations, we've lived in a society of hierarchy. You follow your father, your family, and your tribe. So, when Iraqis were given their freedom, instead of turning to democracy, they, like many others in the region, turned to religion and religious leaders for guidance, and political advice.

What's happening in Iraq today is merely a continuation of the failure of democracy. And a failure of the US to understand the psyche of Iraqis.

The people who might have been able to change Iraq - the educated, the artists, the moderates - began leaving in 1990, mostly illegally, after the embargo was imposed and their comfortable lifestyles came to an end.

Until 2003, I was barred from travelling, along with other pharmacists, doctors and certain professionals.

I wanted to leave, but what would I do? Where would I go?

Only a handful of countries even allowed travel on an Iraqi passport. My parents and siblings fled to Syria, and later to Jordan. I stayed in Baghdad.

With my friends and family gone, I felt isolated and alone. It also became unsafe to move around - even to do simple things like go to a restaurant or to the market.

In 2009, I managed to make it to the US as a refugee, and I was happy to leave Iraq behind. But even though I'd given up on my country, I had hoped that things would not get as bad as they have today.

It is my worst nightmare that an extremist group like the ISIS has support in Iraq and, though it pains me to say this, the aftermath of the US invasions has brought us to this point.

I despised Saddam, but I don't think an extremist group like the ISIS would exist under his rule. Even if Saddam had gone crazy and killed a bunch of people, it wouldn't be anywhere near the number of people who have died since he was overthrown.

As I read the news on CNN Arabic and the BBC while pacing around the house, I feel as if I'm experiencing a death in the family. I'm going through the stages of grief - denial, anger, depression. Lately, I've even tried to avoid reading the news at all.

Sometimes, I watch old YouTube videos that show the way Iraq used to be. The Iraq I loved and was proud of - the country I lived in before 1990 - doesn't exist any more.

And I don't see that changing in my lifetime.

The writer lives in Los Angeles. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square, www.zocalopublicsquare.org, an "ideas exchange" that is a project of the Centre for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University.