WASHINGTON — It came as no surprise that dictator Moammar Gadhafi, holding an umbrella, vowed to die "a martyr" in his own country during a rambling, semi-coherent speech to the Libyan people last week.
Eccentricity has always been second nature to the "King of Kings."
To the world, he's known for a Gilbert and Sullivan array of costumes: dazzling, embroidered kufis — traditional African hats — bomber jackets or shirts with a map of Africa on them.
Then there's his flamboyant and iconoclastic disregard for protocol and rules, like wanting to pitch a Bedouin tent in Central Park during the 2009 United Nations General Assembly opening. The media routinely have reported on the entourage of female bodyguards who follow him everywhere.
Now the onetime army captain who seized power in a 1969 coup is watching his grip over Libya slip away as an insurrection, fueled by wholesale slaughters of protesters, leaves him and his hard-core loyalists all but cornered in their stronghold of Tripoli.
When and how his end will come appears to be just a matter of time.
Gadhafi, at his best odd and difficult to understand, has always fostered a sense of self-importance as he presided over one of the Middle East's most despotic regimes.
But lurking within that arrogance and bizarre self-aggrandizement is a desert fox, said Clement Henry, a retired professor of government and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
"He has had occasional mental episodes, but he's also a very shrewd guy," Henry said, adding: "I think Gadhafi today seems completely removed from reality."
President Ronald Reagan called him the "mad dog of the Middle East" in the 1980s.
"People say he's a madman," Henry said. "But actually I don't think it's madness in any conventional sense. The guy is really quite astute.
"At this point, he is removed from reality just as Hosni Mubarak was. The guy is ready to really do a scorched-earth policy. Remember, Ben Ali and Mubarak also sent their goons in," Henry said, referring to the toppled leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, respectively.
U.S. diplomats found Gadhafi to be both wily and eccentric, according to State Department cables revealed by WikiLeaks. The Libyan relies heavily on a Ukrainian nurse named Galyna, "who has been described as a 'voluptuous blonde,' " according to one cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
They also describe him as a hypochondriac who insists on having all his medical procedures videotaped and then discussing them with his doctors, and as someone who has a fear of both flying over water and the upper floors of buildings.
As a leader, he is hard to describe, said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center based in Doha, Qatar.
"He's certainly one of the oddest world leaders in recent memory. It's hard to find someone who is remotely similar to him in style and demeanor," Hamid said, adding that Gadhafi is capable of massacring his own people.
In 1986, after Libya was suspected of involvement in the bombing of a German disco where U.S. soldiers were killed, Reagan dispatched U.S. jets to attack Gadhafi's residence in Tripoli. Gadhafi's adopted daughter — he has seven sons — was killed.
The most notorious incident of the 68-year-old leader's rule was the 1988 bombing by Libya that killed 270 people aboard a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland. In response, the United Nations slapped Libya with sanctions that remained in place until 2003, when Gadhafi owned up to his country's involvement in the attack and compensated the victims' families.
Just this week, after defecting to the opposition, former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil alleged that Gadhafi was directly involved in the bombing.
Gadhafi's fate may come down to two scenarios: death or exile, possibly to Venezuela, whose ruler, President Hugo Chávez, is one of the Libyan leader's few sympathizers.