TRIPOLI, Feb 20 – Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is facing an unprecedented challenge to his four-decade rule of the oil-rich North African country after six days of anti-regime unrest and more than 170 deaths reported.
In power for nearly 42 years, the one-time political pariah had imposed himself as a key international player the West could not ignore.
As a young colonel, Gaddafi on September 1, 1969, led a coup overthrowing the Western-backed elderly King Idriss, and quickly established himself as a belligerent, unpredictable and flamboyant leader.
Reputedly born in a Bedouin tent in the desert near Sirte in 1942, Gaddafi alienated the West soon after seizing power, accusing it of launching a "new crusade" against the Arabs.
His idol was Egyptian president and fervent Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, and he also variously declared himself a fan of Mao Zedong, Stalin and even Hitler.
Libya was for decades linked to a spate of terrorist attacks the world over, with Gaddhafi also being accused of using Libya\’s oil wealth — the country is Africa\’s third largest producer after Nigeria and Angola — to fund and arm rebel groups across Africa and beyond.
Libya became an international pariah in the aftermath of the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing, but relations began to thaw when it agreed in 2003 to pay compensation to the families of the 270 people who were killed.
Gaddafi also renounced terrorism and declared in 2003 that he was giving up the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, prompting the lifting of UN sanctions.
The declaration also shored up dramatically Libya\’s ties with the West and was crowned with a visit in September 2008 by then US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
In February 2009, Gaddafi was elected chairman of the African Union, after he tired from championing Arab unity and months after African tribal dignitaries bestowed on him the title of "king of kings."
He is known for receiving world leaders in a bedouin tent, rather than in palatial buildings, and often dresses in colourful flowing robes, surrounded by an entourage of female bodyguards.
His country has often been the focus of international attention.
In 2007, Tripoli released Bulgarian medics who had spent eight years in jail for allegedly infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV-tainted blood.
In 2008, the festive homecoming of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi, who was released by Scottish authorities on compassionate grounds, triggered fury in the United States.
And an apology to Libya the same year by Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz over the 2007 arrest of one of Kadhafi\’s sons, Hannibal, drew harsh criticism across the Alpine nation.
The Arab world\’s longest-serving leader continues to rile the West and Arab leaders with his belligerent and provocative statements, although he has said nothing in public since the anti-regime protests began less than a week ago.
In July 2009, he blasted the UN Security Council as a form of "terrorism" in a speech at a Non-Aligned Movement summit.
In March the same year, he hurled insults at Saudi King Abdullah at an Arab summit, telling him: "You are always lying and you\’re facing the grave and you were made by Britain and protected by the United States."
Gaddafi can be quick to praise himself.
"I am the leader of the Arab leaders, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of the Muslims," he has said.
On a trip to Italy he was quoted as describing women in the Arab and Muslim world as "a piece of furniture you can change when you want" and said the situation needed a "feminine revolution."
Gaddafi, who proclaimed a Jamahiriya or "state of the masses" in March 1977, is officially known as "guide of the revolution" as he has always shunned the title president.
His revolutionary "Green Book," also published in 1977, offers "a third theory of the world" between capitalism and socialism, and according to him provides the only real solution for humanity.
Gaddafi is reportedly grooming his son Seif al-Islam — one of eight children plus an adopted daughter who was killed in US bombing raids in 1986 — as his successor.