Formerly a captain in the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, Nate Rawlings, now studying at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, came to TIME as an intern this summer. In 2006 and again in 2008-09, Rawlings spent yearlong tours in Iraq. When TIME's former Baghdad bureau chief Bobby Ghosh was preparing to make a trip back to Iraq to assess progress there, he invited Rawlings to join him. They found a country where security and peace are still fragile but one that has changed for the better since the darkest days of the insurgency in 2006-07. Their dispatches:
U.S. soldiers dubbed it Route Irish, and Iraqis called it the Highway of Death. The seven miles (11 km) from the airport into the city was once the most dangerous road on the planet.
RAWLINGS: Stuffed into the backseat of the station wagon, I clenched my fists to make sure my hands weren't shaking. The first time I drove this road was in 2006; my first glimpse of Baghdad was from the commander's hatch of a Bradley fighting vehicle. After that day, I led or participated in more than 400 missions and patrols. We would lurch down the highways and through Baghdad's neighborhoods, sucking on cigarettes and praying that the roadside garbage didn't hide improvised explosive devices that would suddenly erupt.
Now returning as a civilian, I looked out the car window and saw the familiar landmarks: rows of squat, tan houses behind concrete blast walls and Iraqi-army checkpoints. They added to my growing anxiety. I couldn't wish away the feeling that I was back in Iraq.
GHOSH: Baghdad's roads are a lot safer now than in 2006. Back then, I would have refused to bring Nate along for the ridenot just because he's a soldier but also because he's so obviously a foreigner. My Indian origins allow me to pass for a local, but I was never more frightened than when traveling with an American or European colleague. These days, there are places in Baghdad that foreigners can visit, as long as they exercise appropriate caution.
The parks on Abu Nuwas Street, on the banks of the Tigris, are a favored picnic spot for Baghdad residents. Children have room to frolic, and at night, restaurants serve masgoufflame-roasted river carp, a local delicacy.
GHOSH: After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, the U.S. military restricted access to the corniche, lest militants use it to mount attacks on the Green Zone across the river. The Iraqi government reopened it in the fall of 2007. The parks were spruced up, and new restaurants were opened. But the event was greeted by Baghdadis with an ironic shrug. Who, they asked, would care to picnic on the river when their city was still racked by sectarian violence? At the time, I shared the skepticism.
RAWLINGS: As the sun set over the city, families and bands of teenagers strolled along the river. Children too young to remember the war played in a large pool, racing one another in bumper boats. We ordered masgouf at one of the restaurants and watched it being cooked. When the waiter brought it to the table, I hesitated. Carp is a bottom feeder, and the Tigris is teeming with industrial refuse and sewage. "It's actually quite good," Bobby said, "so long as you don't think too hard about where it came from."
Mahmudiyah, a half-hour drive south of Baghdad, was the heart of what the U.S. military called the Triangle of Death. Sunni insurgents there fought fierce battles against military patrols.
RAWLINGS: My welcome to combat came during the very first patrol I led on a stretch of highway near Mahmudiyah. On a cold January night, I was in charge of a section of two Bradley fighting vehicles. We crossed a canal bridge and suddenly drove into a wall of machine-gun fire. I ordered my driver to push forward to get a better angle on the attackers when an insurgent peeked over a mound of dirt and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the back of my Bradley. It skimmed off the back of the vehicle and exploded into the wall of an Iraqi-army compound nearby. The entire fight lasted two minutes. They ducked into the canal, and we were powerless to chase them.
GHOSH: The last time I was in this area, in early 2005, my main fear was being killed by someone like Nate. I'd been brought to a secret meeting of tribal sheiks who were discussing feuds between insurgent groups. It was a furtive, hurried affair: everyone was concerned that a squad of American soldiers would come crashing through the date palms and begin a firefight that could only have had one outcome.
Now Highway 1 is so safe, there are makeshift shacks along the road selling snacks and cold drinks. Wherever we stopped to talk to villagers, their recollections of the Americans were mixed: some remembered the late-night raids, doors broken down and menfolk hauled off to prison without explanation; others spoke of friendlier encounters with soldiers after the surge of 2007.