Nouri al-Maliki

BAGHDAD — Iraq has defeated terrorism and is well on the road to recovery after five years of war, a confident Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared. Then the lights went out.

Al-Maliki, known for his dour gaze and steely nerves, tried to continue his speech. But his bodyguards would have none of that.

They hustled him off the stage — apparently fearing that the power failure might be part of a plot against the prime minister.

Al-Maliki's speech Thursday was an attempt to boost national morale on the anniversary of the start of the war. But its abrupt end was a reminder of the country's persistent problems and the obstacles ahead.

Iraqis must cope with frequent power outages, lack of clean drinking water, rampant joblessness — and the ever-present fear of violent death. Five years of bombs, bullets and sectarian slaughter have sapped much of the spirit from this troubled nation. Despite signs of progress, many Iraqis hold out little hope for a quick end to their suffering.

"The situation is very unstable," said Jassim Mohammed, 40, a Sunni employee of the Iraqi National Library in Baghdad. "I simply do not see any light at the end of this dark tunnel."

Al-Maliki delivered his remarks at a cultural festival in Hillah, a mostly Shiite city about 60 miles south of Baghdad near the ruins of fabled Babylon, one of the great cities of the ancient world.

The prime minister was speaking five years to the day after U.S. forces fired a first salvo of missiles before dawn on March 20, 2003, triggering a conflict that toppled Saddam Hussein but has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 4,000 American troops.

Al-Maliki promised to strengthen Iraq's role in world affairs, assuring the Iraqi people that their nation "cannot be anything but strong, unified and active."

"It will not be isolated," al-Maliki said of Iraq. "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 statements aimed at rallying morale and projecting the image of Iraq as a country on the road to recovery as it enters a sixth year of war.

On Wednesday, al-Maliki, a Shiite, attended religious celebrations in Azamiyah, a Sunni Arab neighborhood of Baghdad that had been a bastion of al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni extremist groups.

Al-Maliki said the cultural festival was a sign that normal life was returning to Iraq. He cut short his remarks a few moments later when the electricity failed.

American officials have touted the sharp decline in violence over the past year as a sign that the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq is beginning to show signs of success, despite widespread opposition to the conflict within the American public.

According to the U.S. military, attacks have fallen by about 60 percent since early last year, when President Bush rushed about 30,000 American reinforcements to curb a wave of sectarian massacres that plunged the nation to the brink of full-scale civil war.

But U.S. officials also acknowledge that Iraq remains far from secure and that the security gains so far are fragile because of ongoing political disputes among rival Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities.

In the latest violence, three policemen were killed Thursday in a roadside bombing and a shooting in Mosul, which the U.S. military describes as 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 in the northern city of Beiji, police said.

Also Thursday, the U.S. military said troops killed seven suspected insurgents trying to plant a roadside bomb north of Baghdad the day before. Iraqi police in Samarra said the dead were civilians trying to repair their car along the roadside.

"Iraq is hard, complicated," U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters Thursday. "While we've seen tremendous progress in terms of better security — and that's reflected in things Iraqis say — it's fragile. It's the kind of thing that can fly back."

As the war drags on, many Iraqis have become increasingly pessimistic that the Americans and their Iraqi and coalition allies will manage to bring lasting peace anytime soon.

In Mosul, Shiite taxi driver Mahmoud Abdul-Hussein, 38, said he was pleased that the U.S. and its allies rid the country of Saddam's tyranny.

"But I regret the cluelessness of the politicians and religious men who seek to promote their own interests and neglect the unity of Iraq," Abdul-Hussein said.

Even though killings are down, Iraqis also complain of electricity shortages, lack of clean drinking water and poorly equipped schools for their children. Unemployment is estimated between 25 percent and 50 percent, according to Iraqi government figures.

Last year, a record number of Iraqis sought asylum in the European Union, according to U.N. figures released this week. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said asylum requests from Iraqis soared to 38,286 in 2007, from 19,375 in 2006, despite the reduction in violence.

"When the former regime was toppled, we hoped that the situation and living standards would improve," Mohammed al-Bahidili told Associated Press Television News in Tikrit. "But the Americans did nothing for Iraqis. We have seen only killings, looting, explosions and kidnapping."