Col Muammar Qaddafi: The man who stole a country

He seized power in a bloodless coup at age 27, with an ideology of Islamic socialism, and seemed every bit the revolutionary icon as Che Guevara. Forty-two years later, he is on the run as a pantomime villain.

Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi looks on during a news conference at the Quirinale Palace in Rome in this June 10, 2009 file photo. Libyan government tanks and snipers put up scattered, last-ditch resistance in Tripoli on August 22, 2011 after rebels swept into the heart of the capital, cheered on by crowds hailing the end of Gaddafi's 42 years in power. REUTERS/Max Rossi/Files (ITALY - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY IMAGES OF THE DAY CONFLICT) *** Local Caption ***  GAD128_LIBYA-_0822_11.JPG
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For a man so skilled in the art of self-promotion, it seems odd that Muammar Qaddafi never rose above the rank of colonel.

There have been various explanations. That it was a tribute to his hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser, himself a colonel when he overthrew King Farouk of Egypt. Or that in a society that in his own words was "ruled by the people", there was no need for a leader with a lofty title.

If indeed this was a burst of self-effacement, it was rare, for Col Qaddafi found sufficient designations to inflate his colossal ego:

King of Kings of Africa.

Dean of Arab Rulers.

Imam of Muslims.

Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

"My status does not allow me to descend to a lower level," he hectored a gathering of the Arab League in Cairo in March 2009.

Col Qaddafi was only a captain when he toppled the throne of King Idris I on September 1, 1969, while the ageing monarch was in Turkey receiving medical treatment. He and the young army officers who carried out the bloodless coup had styled themselves as idealistic and modern. Nearly 42 years later, his era has finally ended, with his regime in ruins and him on the run from his dogged pursuers.

Captain Qaddafi was 27 when he took power. The son of a Bedouin goat herder, he had forged his ideology of Islamic socialism at military college.

Declaring a revolutionary state of government by the masses, he appeared every inch a 60's hero and an equal of Fidel Castro or Che Guevara, with a taste for crisp military dress uniforms adorned by nothing grander than the tags of rank and a rakish beret.

Decades later, he had become a pantomime villain in much of the world, even if there was little to amuse in his relentless sponsorship of international terrorism, the gratuitous profligacy of his family and the ruthless suppression of an impoverished Libyan people. The sheer extravagance of the man's ego, even for his opponents, was a head-shaking wonder to behold.

For a visit to Italy in 2007, he upstaged even the equally overinflated prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, with Col Qaddafi in the uniform of a Sicilian village bandleader, festooned in gold braid and with a slab of irrelevant medal ribbons pinned to his left breast.

Also attached to his costume was a calculated snub to his hosts; a photograph of the Libyan resistance leader Omar Mukhtar, taken on the eve of his execution by Italian colonial rulers.

Such aggrandising gestures were the hallmark of his excursions abroad. For a summit of Arab leaders in June 1988, he sported a white glove, claiming that he wanted to avoid soiling his right hand while shaking it with "Arab traitors". To show his contempt for King Hussein of Jordan, he theatrically cast a white sheet over his body during a speech by the monarch.

To say the colonel travelled in style would be the epitome of understatement. At a gathering of non-aligned nations in Belgrade in 1989, the colonel was accompanied by a pair of Arabian stallions and six camels, the latter to provide him with fresh milk.

The Yugoslavian authorities denied him permission to enter the summit on horseback, but allowed him to pitch his desert tent in front of his hotel, unlike the residents of Englewood, New Jersey who rejected a proposal for the "King of Kings" to camp out while attending the UN General Assembly in New York two years ago.

On the same trip, the colonel wrote an editorial for The New York Times, proposing a one-state solution for Israel and the Palestinian territories, to be called "Isratine". Later he greeted the newly elected President Barack Obama as "a son of Africa", while wearing extravagant flowing robes of crimson and gold and an embroidered kulfi cap.

But the comedic effect of the ludicrous pronouncements, the Travolta-style white suits, the fur-trappers hat or his supposed invention of the world's safest car (rocket-shaped with windows tinted revolutionary green) could not mask the darker side of his interventions in world affairs.

The failure of his pan-Arabist ambitions in the 70s saw him increasingly turn against leaders in the Middle East. A wicked fairy at regional summits, he repaid the hospitality of his hosts by throwing tantrums that included accusing Gulf rulers of pandering to the United States and warning other Arab leaders in 2008 that they faced the same fate as Saddam Hussein.

The extent of Libya's involvement in many of the atrocities of the final quarter of the 20th century is still unclear. Col Qaddafi is widely suspected of financing the Black September Movement, responsible for the kidnapping and death of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Other terrorist organisations were certainly recipients of his largesse. Shipments of arms to the Irish Republican Army played a major part in prolonging The Troubles of Northern Ireland. Armed left-wing insurgencies from the Philippines to Latin America were also supplied with weapons.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Libya's relationship with the United States and the election of Ronald Reagan. In 1986 the bombing of a Berlin nightclub used by American soldiers led directly to a series of US air strikes aimed directly at the Libyan leader, but whose most significant casualty was a previously unheard-of girl claimed to be Col Qaddafi's adopted daughter.

Libya's response was a further shipment of arms to the IRA (American planes had taken off from USAF bases in Britain). Two years later, Pan-Am flight 103 was blown out of the skies over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people, including 11 sleeping in their homes. Two Libyan agents were eventually convicted of the bombing, with at least one claim that the attack had been personally ordered by Col Qaddafi.

To Arab nations he has been an equally bad neighbour, provoking wars with Egypt and Chad that ended with much loss of Libyan life.

Above all, there is the blight visited on his own people who have suffered not just the impenetrable doggerel of his Green Book but 40 years of state-sponsored brutality, intimidation and execution in the name of Jamahiriya, the grotesquely ironic cod-philosophy of government by the masses.

The reality, of course, was the Jamahiriya has been nothing but a cover story for the looting of an oil-rich state and its six million population by the Qaddafi family and its cronies, personified by his eldest son Hannibal, an overindulged and thuggish princeling whose arrest on charges of assaulting members of his staff in Geneva in 2008 virtually severed relations between Libya and Switzerland.

Col Qaddafi's typically hyperbolic response to the brief detention of his son was to take several innocent Swiss businessmen hostage, brand Switzerland a "world mafia" and to call for the country to be broken up between Germany, France and Italy.

Until his own people rose up against him, Col Qaddafi had spent much of the last decade rebuilding his image.

Even before the attacks of September 11, 2001, he appeared to be taking a more conciliatory approach in international relations, declaring himself ready to battle Al Qaeda. Two years later, with American troops entering Baghdad, he revealed details of Libya's nuclear weapons programme, offering international inspectors to oversee its destruction.

The enthusiasm and warmth with which western governments rushed to embrace the former black sheep now seems misplaced, to say the least. It was Tony Blair who literally embraced Col Qaddafi back into the fold of world leaders, followed by Nicolas Sarkozy of France. There were lucrative oil contracts at stake, and another for nuclear power.

Abroad he was recast as an almost loveable eccentric who might take time on a state visit to host a gathering of 200 beautiful Italian women and travelled at all times with his private Ukrainian nurse.

Back home it was business as usual. The bloated spectacle of the celebrations for his 40th anniversary last year included a macabre re-enactment of a mass hanging during the Italian colonial occupation.

The actors dangling from the gallows could just as well represented the reality of daily life in Col Qaddafi's Libya, where execution was a routine punishment for dissent.

In the final months of his rule, marked by rambling and incoherent speeches of defiance, the proxy war he once threatened the rest of the world became a real conflict visited on the Libyan people, gunned down in the streets, blasted by his tanks and aircraft but finding the courage to take back their country from the man who always claimed he had never led them at all.