TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — During nearly 42 years in power in Libya, Moammar Gadhafi was one of the world’s most eccentric dictators, so mercurial that he was both condemned and courted by the West, while he brutally warped his country with his idiosyncratic vision of autocratic rule until he was finally toppled by his own people.
The modern Arab world’s longest-ruling figure, Libya’s “Brother Leader” displayed striking contrasts. He was a sponsor of terrorism whose regime was blamed for blowing up two passenger jets, who then helped the U.S. in the war on terror. He was an Arab nationalist who mocked Arab rulers. In the crowning paradox, he preached a “revolutionary” utopia of people power but ran a one-man dictatorship that fueled the revolution against him.
His death on Thursday at age 69 — confirmed by Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril — came as Libyan fighters defeated Gadhafi’s last holdouts in his hometown of Sirte, the last major site of resistance in the country.
Their final declaration of victory came weeks after Gadhafi was swept from power by rebels who drove triumphantly into the capital of Tripoli on Aug. 21, capping a six-month civil war.
“Dance, sing and fight!” Gadhafi had exhorted his followers even as his enemies were on the capital’s doorstep before fleeing into Libya’s hinterlands where his die-hard backers had continued to battle the rebels-turned-rulers.
Gadhafi leaves behind an oil-rich nation of 6.5 million traumatized by a rule that drained it of institutions while the ship of state was directed by the whims of one man and his family. Notorious for his extravagant outfits — ranging from white suits and sunglasses to military uniforms with frilled epaulets to brilliantly colored robes decorated with the map of Africa — he styled himself as a combination Bedouin chief and philosopher king.
He reveled in infuriating leaders, whether in the West or the Middle East. U.S. President Ronald Reagan, after the 1986 bombing that killed U.S. servicemen in Berlin was blamed on Libya, branded him a “mad dog.” Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who fought a border war with Libya in the 1970s, wrote in his diary that Gadhafi was “mentally sick” and “needs treatment.”
Behind the flamboyance and showmanship, associates say Gadhafi was meticulous in managing the levers of power. He intervened in decisions large and small and constantly met personally with tribal leaders and military officers whose support he maintained through lucrative posts.
The sole constant was his grip on the country. Numerous coup and assassination attempts against him over the years mostly ended with public executions of the plotters, hanged in city squares.
The ultimate secret of his longevity lay in the vast oil reserves under his North African desert nation and in his capacity for drastic changes of course when necessary.
The most spectacular U-turn came in late 2003. After years of denial, Libya acknowledged responsibility — though in a Gadhafi-esque twist of logic, not guilt — for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people. He agreed to pay up to $10 million to relatives of each victim.
He also announced that Libya would dismantle its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs under international supervision.
The rewards came fast. Within months, the U.S. lifted economic sanctions and resumed diplomatic ties. The European Union hosted Gadhafi in Brussels. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2008 became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the country in more than 50 years. Tony Blair, as British prime minister, visited him in Tripoli.
International oil companies rushed to invest in Libya’s fields. Documents uncovered after Gadhafi’s fall revealed close cooperation between his intelligence services and the CIA in pursuing terror suspects after the 9/11 attacks, even before the U.S. lifted its designation of Libya as a sponsor of terror in 2006.
Still, Gadhafi’s renegade ways did not change. After Swiss police had the temerity to briefly arrest his son Hannibal for allegedly beating up two servants in a Geneva luxury hotel in 2008, Gadhafi’s regime arrested two Swiss nationals and raked Switzerland over the coals, extracting an apology and compensation before finally releasing the men nearly two years later. European countries, eagerly building economic ties with Libya, did little to back up Switzerland in the dispute.
But Gadhafi became an instant pariah once more when he began a brutal crackdown on the February uprising in his country that grew out of the “Arab Spring” of popular revolts across the region. The U.N. authorized a no-fly zone for Libya in March, and NATO launched a campaign of airstrikes against his military forces.
“I am a fighter, a revolutionary from tents ... I will die as a martyr at the end,” he proclaimed in one of his last televised speeches during the uprising, pounding the lectern near a sculpture of a golden fist crushing a U.S. warplane.
Gadhafi was born in 1942 in the central Libyan desert near Sirte, the son of a Bedouin father who was once jailed for opposing Libya’s Italian colonialists. The young Gadhafi seemed to inherit that rebellious nature, being expelled from high school for leading a demonstration, and disciplined while in the army for organizing revolutionary cells.
In 1969, as a mere 27-year-old captain, he emerged as leader of a group of officers who overthrew the monarchy of King Idris.