Water? Check. Cooler to prevent the water from reaching boiling point? Check. AK-47 assault rifles, handguns, police authorization and walkie-talkies? Check, check, check and check.
It wasn't your typical road trip. We left Baghdad at 5 a.m. Destination: Basra, Iraq's second largest city and only major port, 340 miles (550 km) to the southeast. The nighttime curfew had just ended when we--eight bodyguards, two interpreters, four journalists and four drivers--piled into our cars as the sun was coming up.
The Iraqi capital's streets were empty, allowing our convoy to speed past collapsed buildings, concrete barriers and sleeping soldiers at checkpoints. By day, these streets would be clogged with traffic, and we'd be tense over the risk of explosions. Instead, we were unbridled, free, giddy. TIME photographer Yuri Kozyrev has been covering Iraq since before the U.S. invasion. He had already been to Basra three times, but the last time he had driven like this, in a "soft"--unarmored--car and without the protection of the U.S. military, was in late 2003. Earlier this year, the route we were traveling was so rife with violence that the trip would have been impossible. In the past year, the roads south of Baghdad have started to stabilize, thanks to the efforts of Iraqi and U.S. troops and a cease-fire declaration by radical opposition cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
As we drove out of Baghdad, Yuri's camera click-clicked cautiously past rusting scrap yards in the lingering insurgent strongholds of Salman Pak, al-Hafriya and Hay al-Wahida--impoverished slums of outer Baghdad where desperation and frustration have created fertile breeding grounds for insurgents. Every so often, our driver, Sami, would yell, "Checkpoint!" Our cameras would fall to the floor, and we would try to appear innocent as weary-looking soldiers scrutinized our authorization documents in a country still suspicious of journalists' motives. There was a similar procedure for my headscarf and abaya, conservative Islamic women's attire, which I removed in "safer" regions and put on in "dangerous" ones. The black shroud was stifling but necessary camouflage in areas where most women don them and where a second look from the wrong person can still prove deadly.
Two days later, we entered Basra. Tanks and Iraqi soldiers have come to occupy nearly permanent spaces at intersections and on sidewalks. On the road that runs along the Shatt al-Arab waterway--the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers--where seven months ago Basra residents feared kidnappings and abuse, young people and families now crowd outdoor cafés and recreational boat decks late into the evening. Children jostle one another at popcorn and juice vendors, and photographers snap customers' portraits next to an outdoor display of fake flowers and stuffed animals.
Despite the air of normality that nearly brought Yuri to tears at some points--like when we had our morning coffee outdoors in a crowded back alley during a stop in Amarah, capital of the restless border province of Maysan--the trip at times was undeniably tense. Our nerves frayed when traffic jams caused by U.S. military convoys brought us to hour-long standstills, and when an anonymous group of men pulled up to the gates of our Basra hotel late at night--journalists have been kidnapped from hotels in Basra.
After hours of driving one day, we stopped on a bridge over the Tigris for a car wash, where masked youths, looking like bandits, had drawn water out of the cloudy current by hose. They seemed friendly enough, but as our stationary convoy began attracting curious eyes, our bodyguards said it was time to move. "We are in the war," Sami reminded us, his grin a mix of humor and utter seriousness in the rearview mirror. In a second, we were off again, dust flying, as the muffled voice of the lead driver came in over the radios: "Go, go, go! Don't anyone stop!" It may be easier to drive out of Baghdad now, but danger still lurks on the road.
Iraq Journal For a video of TIME's Basra road trip, visit time.com/roadtrip