The man appeared suddenly at the foot of my bed, the sound of the bedroom door crashing open and rocking me from sleep. I gasped for breath, my body sitting bolt upright from the commotion. He approached me with a pistol raised in one hand and the index finger of the other at his lips as he shushed me.
The robber pressed the gun to my head as a fellow gang member joined him and put the blade of a large knife to my throat, emphasising the point that I was completely under their control. They tied my hands behind my back and pushed me on to the bed. I lay motionless and silent as they ransacked the room, taking cash, phones, clothes and everything else.
All this happened one morning in July 2003 in Baghdad. I had been in Iraq for less than two weeks and I finally understood that it really was a dangerous and lawless place – and not the flourishing post-war nation that many of us had hoped it was on its way to becoming after a US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
Looking back, I know I had been lucky. These men were only after money and valuables. Later, I would learn from my colleague who had also been in the house during the robbery, that the gang’s leader had found some $13,000 in cash in his room and urged his fellow thieves to leave the house quickly, sparing us any further distress.
I retell this story because 16 years ago, Baghdad was a dangerous city even if you minded your own business. People died every day in post-war Iraq. The hospitals were under-resourced with even basic medicines unavailable.
There were no jobs. The army, a source of income for millions of families, had been disbanded. Law and order had effectively been outsourced to the American military and government institutions were virtually non-existent. Ordinary citizens were subjected to random and surprising raids on their homes by US soldiers – often on faulty intelligence. Sometimes these operations turned deadly. Even if they did not, husbands and fathers would be humiliated in front of wives and children. This added to the daily humiliation for many of being unable to properly feed and clothe them.
It was an environment lacking dignity and one that could only breed more violence and unrest.
Stripped of this, many chose to live on their own terms. Some fought against the foreign invader while others targeted foreigners who had more than they did by engaging in robbery and banditry. Everyone was armed to some degree.
A quarter century of living under Saddam’s brutal rule had also desensitised the population to the immorality of some their post-war behaviour. This is not to excuse it but rather explain it a little.
Soon this moral vacuum would escalate to horror – kidnappings, a broader civil conflict and eventually ISIS.
Has it all been inevitable? Probably once the US-led invasion toppled Saddam’s regime, there was always going to be some kind of reckoning for a country used and abused for decades. Iraq had become a mafia state shorn of control and limits overnight.
However, avoidable mistakes have certainly been made. The situation today, which has led to deadly protests against chronic unemployment, poor public services and widespread corruption, echoes the mistakes in the post-war chaos of 2003.
The lesson that Iraqis cannot live without dignity and honour has not been adequately learned by successive governments. Providing basic services is key to allowing someone to live with dignity. This is especially the case if you tell people that the war is over, such as when the Americans claimed "mission accomplished" in 2003 or the Iraqi government declared ISIS defeated almost two years ago. You should be able to give them normality or they will not tolerate a lack of basic services for very long.
Dignity is also hard to come by if in reality you are controlled by a foreign power and not governed justly by your own people. That is a universal truth – one that has repeatedly been ignored in Iraq over the past 100 years.
In recent months there had been signs that Iraqis could live in dignity and get on with their lives. And it is a travesty that the latest demonstrations have been met with force and bullets instead of understanding and contriteness.
I am always reminded in times like these of the oft-repeated lie that Iraqis need some kind of brutal rule to keep them in line. The opposite is actually true. Iraqis respond to what they are given in kind. A survey by the UK-based Chatham House think tank has found that most Iraqis actually believe a leader should be chosen through free and fair elections. This rings true in my experience.
Instead of bombs, the Iraqi people should be given the tools of justice and dignity. They will take them with both hands and, at last, make a great nation out of them.
Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National