PM Says Iraq Must Rise Above Violence

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's prime minister said Thursday that his country must rise above violence and assert itself in international and cultural forums if it is to achieve normalcy as the war enters its sixth year.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised to strengthen Iraq's participation in international organizations in comments made at the opening of a cultural festival south of Baghdad.

"Iraq cannot be anything but strong, unified and active in the surrounding region. It will not be isolated," the Shiite leader said a speech broadcast on state television. "As Iraq has triumphed over terrorism, it will triumph in the international arena."

Al-Maliki's optimistic remarks were the latest in a series of appearances as he seeks to use a sharp decline in violence in the capital and surrounding areas to project a stable image for Iraq and bolster his beleaguered government.

The prime minister said the cultural festival in Hillah, the predominantly Shiite capital of Babil province about 60 miles south of Baghdad, was evidence that Iraq was on the road to recovery.

"This is a sign of the return to normal life in Iraq," the prime minister said before having to end his speech early after the power went out.

A day earlier, Iraq's presidential council, under strong U.S. pressure, signed off on a measure paving the way for provincial elections by the fall, a major step toward easing sectarian rifts.

The elections would open the door to greater Sunni representation in regional administrations as well rival Shiite factions.

Iraq's parliament passed the bill last month, but the presidential council had blocked implementation after the Shiite vice president, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, raised objections to some of the provisions.

The approval of the measure came two days after U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney visited Baghdad. A spokesman for the biggest Sunni bloc said Cheney pushed hard for progress on the elections as well as a stalled measure to share the country's oil wealth.

Many Sunnis boycotted the last election for provincial officials in January 2005, enabling Shiites and Kurds to win a disproportionate share of power even in areas with substantial Sunni populations.

That helped fuel the Sunni-led insurgency and the wave of sectarian bloodletting that drove the country to the brink of civil war before President Bush rushed nearly 30,000 U.S. reinforcements to Iraq last year.

As a sign of the ongoing threat, officials said three policemen were killed Thursday in a roadside bombing and a shooting in the northwestern city of Mosul, which the U.S. military has said is al-Qaida's last urban stronghold in Iraq.

Another police officer was reported killed in the southern city of Kut.

A senior Iraqi electricity official was released Thursday after being kidnapped the day before kidnapped Wednesday in the northern oil hub of Beiji, a police officer said.

The violence was reported by police officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, raised the death toll from three to five and confirmed that a female suicide bomber had blown herself up in the Diyala province city of Balad Ruz northeast of Baghdad on Wednesday.

The military also said an Iraqi soldier had been killed and another wounded Wednesday after a booby-trapped door exploded as they were clearing a water treatment plant in Diyala province.

A suicide bomber driving a dump truck packed with 2,000 pounds of explosives struck Iraqi troops in Mosul on Wednesday, killing a soldier and wounding 19 others, according to a separate military statement.

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Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.

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