She was one of three women on the Governing Council set up in July, a foreign policy expert who played a major role in efforts by the fledgling Iraqi leadership to assert itself on the domestic and world scene.

With a bachelor's degree in law and a doctorate in French literature, al-Hashimi shunned the veil and became a women's rights advocate while also a passionate champion of her battered country.

A career diplomat and Shia Muslim, she found political favour both in Saddam Hussein’s government and under the US occupation.

A one-time member of Saddam's Baath party and protégé of former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, the self-proclaimed technocrat handled relations with international organisations under the old regime.

Political realist

As the United States began its massive military build-up prior to the 20 March invasion, al-Hashimi was firmly on the side of Saddam, actively drumming up international support aimed at thwarting Washington's designs on Iraq.

At a press conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Kuala Lumpur in February, she famously declared, "The defence of Iraq is now the defence of the civilised world."

 "(al-Hashimi was a) courageous Iraqi patriot"

Ahmad Chalabi,
Governing Council chairman

But that tune changed with the political realities, heralded by Saddam's downfall with the arrival of coalition forces in April.

Sensing which way the political wind was blowing, she changed sides.

Consequently, Al-Hashimi was one of the few Baathists to survive the purge and was named to the Governing Council in July, serving on the follow-up committee running the interim foreign ministry.

'Iraq is back'

Al-Hashimi led Iraq's team to a reconstruction conference in New York in June and was due to take part in the current round of UN talks on Iraq's future when she was cut down by gunmen who attacked her convoy near her Baghdad home.

Other people on the June team included UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in a truck bomb attack on the UN headquarters in the Iraqi capital on 19 August.

On arrival at UN headquarters in New York, Hashimi declared "Iraq is back" and later added, "This is a declaration of the reintegration of Iraq into the international community."

Governing Council chairman Ahmad Chalabi said his colleague was a "courageous Iraqi patriot" who was not deterred by threats to her life.

Al-Hashimi had faced repeated threats, but had continued to carry out her duties in the run-up to her next UN visit, Chalabi said.

"This delegation, despite the intention of the terrorists, will be at the UN General Assembly to represent Iraq and deliver Iraq's message of peace, democracy and human rights," he added in a statement.

International tributes

A tribute also came from Paul Bremer, Washington's top man in Iraq, who described Hashimi as "a colleague and respected member" of the Governing Council.

"(There is a) need for the Iraqi people to preserve its national unity in this critical period ... the divisions do not serve the interests of the Iraqi people"

Hisham Yusuf,
Arab league spokesman

"This senseless attack is not just against the person of Aqila al-Hashimi. It is an attack against the people of Iraq and against the common goals we share for the establishment of a fully democratic government," he said.

France’s deputy foreign ministry spokeswoman Cecile Pozzo di Borgo honoured al-Hashimi's "strong, captivating and courageous personality" and her "demanding vision for the future of her country".

Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, whose own political future may depend on the situation in Iraq, also expressed his dismay.

"I am shocked and saddened by the death of Doctor al-Hashimi. My sympathies go out to her family and friends," said Blair, who met her in July. 
 
The Cairo-based Arab League condemned the killing of al-Hashimi as counter to the interests of Iraq.

"We can only reject the policy of assassination which destabilises Iraq," Arab league spokesman Hisham Yusuf said.

Yusuf stressed the "need for the Iraqi people to preserve its national unity in this critical period," adding that "the divisions do not serve the interests of the Iraqi people."