French politician brings Paris glamour to Iraq vote

BAGHDAD, Rory Mulholland - Rachida Dati, the first Muslim woman to hold a top job in the French government, brought a touch of Parisian glamour on Saturday to Iraq's elections with a stroll along the Tigris river in Baghdad.
Dati was in the Iraqi capital in her capacity as a European MP observing the elections to help ensure the second parliamentary vote since Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003 is free and fair.

Rachida Dati plays with an orphaned Iraqi girl during a visit to St. Raphael hospital
Rachida Dati plays with an orphaned Iraqi girl during a visit to St. Raphael hospital
Followed by a bevy of French journalists and heavily armed guards from the French embassy, she took a sunset promenade through a riverside park full of picnicking families at the foot of the bomb-shattered Sheraton hotel.
"It's important that (foreign) politicians be present in Iraq to take stock of its rapid evolution in terms of democratisation, the will of the people to have a strong Iraq, a sovereign Iraq and a democratic Iraq," she said.
Dati was dropped from the French government last year after her penchant for designer dresses and appearing on the covers of celebrity magazines prompted criticism that a senior minister should not engage in such frivolity.
On the eve of Sunday's vote, she dressed down, wearing a pair of tight blue jeans, a shiny black blouse, and large golden earrings as she walked alongside the French ambassador.
Puzzled Baghdadis watched and wondered who she might be.
In a possible sign she was still sensitive about media coverage of her wardrobe, she rebuked a cameraman who dared to point his lenses at her high-heeled feet.
"It's not very cool to film my shoes," she said.
Dati, who is the head of an association she set up to help the underprivileged, earlier presented a cheque for 100,000 dollars to a Baghdad hospital run by Roman Catholic nuns.
During a tour of the hospital, the 44-year-old pinched new-born babies' cheeks and chatted with the mother of an infant, sharing comments about her own child.
"Mine is a year and two months old but doesn't walk yet," she told a mother as she picked up a little girl and hugged her to her chest.
Dati sparked a furore when she went back to work as justice minister only five days after giving birth last year to a baby girl whose father she has refused to name.
Several high-profile figures, including former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, have denied fathering the child.
The daughter of poor immigrant Moroccan and Algerian immigrants, Dati was for a time something of a French icon and was President Nicolas Sarkozy's symbol of change in France.
But last year she appeared to fall from favour, was forced to give up the justice ministry and sent to Brussels as a reluctant EU deputy.
She told AFP that her trip to Baghdad came after the French government encouraged her to travel here as one of the hundreds of international observers watching out for fraud in Sunday's vote.
She said the trip allowed her to combine politics and humanitarianism.
"It's vital for me for my political engagement to be combined with civic engagement," Dati said as she toured the hospital.

Sunday, March 7th 2010
Rory Mulholland

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