In the last hours of his life, Russian photojournalist Dmitry Chebotayev was doing what he lived for: taking pictures. And laughing. Chebotayev died Sunday when...

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BAQOUBA, Iraq — In the last hours of his life, Russian photojournalist Dmitry Chebotayev was doing what he lived for: taking pictures. And laughing.

Chebotayev died Sunday when a bomb exploded under the U.S. Stryker troop carrier he was traveling in as it moved down a road in this insurgent-plagued city northeast of Baghdad, killing him along with six American soldiers. He was 29.

The six soldiers were members of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, a Stryker combat team from Fort Lewis.

Chebotayev is the first Russian journalist known to have died in Iraq. At least 101 journalists have been killed here since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Born Jan. 20, 1978, Chebotayev graduated from Moscow State Technological University in 2001 with a degree in economics. He loved to snowboard and was an avid cyclist, said his girlfriend of six years, Natalia Kolesnikova.

After he suffered from a spinal ailment at age 24, Chebotayev was forced to give up a career in sports. He became depressed, but Kolesnikova said she suggested he become a photographer and they bought a camera together.

Chebotayev quickly developed a passion for the craft.

“He took the camera, he liked it, he made real progress,” said Kolesnikova, a 28-year-old photographer in Moscow for the French news agency Agence France-Presse. “By age 29, after just four years, he became a role model for many of his colleagues.”

Chebotayev began freelancing for the Russian news photo agency Photoxpress in 2003. Two years later, he became a contract photographer with the Russian edition of Newsweek magazine. He also worked for the World Picture Network, the European Pressphoto Agency and the independent Moscow daily Kommersant.

He took assignments in Chechnya, India and Lebanon.

The trip to Iraq was his first.

“He understood everything,” Kolesnikova said of the risks of his trade. “He tried to reassure his loved ones that he would be fine … Dima was that rare type of person who felt that he had to work” in dangerous areas.

Arriving in Baghdad in March, Chebotayev embedded with U.S. Marines in troubled Anbar province. In April, he transferred to U.S. units in Baghdad before flying to Baqouba at the end of the month. He had planned to stay in Iraq through May.

Chebotayev said the war was different than he imagined. He found many places unexpectedly quiet — but always dangerous.

While on a patrol in Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood last month, Chebotayev said the Humvee he was riding in was hit by small-arms fire. Glass struck his face, but did not injure him. Days later, he bought $67 protective eye wear, saying, “I’m a photographer, I have to protect the most important part of my body — my eyes.”

In Iraq, Chebotayev produced extraordinarily thoughtful works of art, taking pictures of civilians and troops indoors or at night. His work resembled centuries-old oil paintings and showed a mastery of light composition.

During one patrol last week, he said: “I don’t want to take many pictures of everything, I want to take a few great pictures.”

Chebotayev got along well with American soldiers — including one from Ukraine — who struck up playful conversations when they noticed his Russian accent. He was warm, curious, laughed easily and often joked with soldiers about the U.S.-Russian space race and the Cold War.

While embedded, he chose not to even take shampoo, washing his hair with soap and saving the weight in his backpack for the essentials: his cameras and portable computer, which had a permanent backdrop of his girlfriend, whom he said he loved deeply.

Chebotayev spent free time drinking coffee at a shop on base, and often lay on his cot in a large green military tent, playing backgammon on his cell phone and editing photos.

He was eager to explore Baqouba but frustrated after several days on base without going out.

On Sunday, Chebotayev awoke at 6 a.m. and skipped coffee because he didn’t want to miss the chance to go out with troops from the 2nd Infantry Division’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment. He left the base an hour later with a platoon of four Stryker vehicles wearing a maroon shirt, kneepads, a blue flak vest, a helmet and two cameras strapped over his shoulders.

After spending several hours at an Iraqi police station with troops who picked up a wounded Iraqi policeman from a checkpoint, helicopters spotted armed men at a nearby intersection and several others apparently planting a bomb in a road.

Chebotayev climbed into a Stryker and the troops headed out around noon to another street to cut off the insurgents. As the vehicles inched down a trash-strewn road, a thunderous blast consumed one of them in a huge ball of gray debris that flipped the eight-wheeled, 37,000-pound troop carrier upside down and tore out its interior.

The explosion killed everyone inside except the driver.

As troops scrambled to recover casualties, gunmen fired from a large yellow-domed mosque across the street, sparking a firefight that saw rounds ping off the wreckage. The Strykers blasted small chunks of concrete off the mosque with 40mm grenades and heavy caliber guns. Later, three insurgents wearing armored vests — probably stolen from police — were found dead in the mosque.

That night, Chebotayev’s remains were loaded onto a Black Hawk helicopter on a darkened runway and blessed by an Army chaplain. The aircraft pulled straight up and disappeared into a starry sky, the first step of the journey back to Russia.

Chebotayev is survived by his father, Vyatcheslav Chebotayev, and his mother, Tatjana.

AP writer Maria Danilova contributed to this report from Moscow.