Gambling yet again with his rule, his life, and the fate of one of the most powerful nations in the Middle East, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein appears unfazed by the rising pressure brought to bear by the United States.
Almost nightly on Iraqi television Mr. Hussein calmly waves a Cuban cigar, exhorts his generals to prepare for war, and denies the existence of weapons of mass destruction.
Hussein is an inveterate survivor. Longtime Hussein watchers say hopeless odds to him are simply an opportunity to seal his place in history. "You could make the case that [Hussein] thinks he is protected by Providence, and to some extent there is evidence for that," says Andrew Krepinevich, a former US Army strategic planner who heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "Saddam feels that he is a man on a mission, and that somehow he will be allowed to complete it."
Such a mind-set is posing problems for US war planners trying to conflict. When will the rational, diplomatic response - now in evidence, even as pressure builds - give way to the violent lashing out of a man with his back to the wall? How might chemical and biological weapons, if Iraq has any, come into play?
Those secrets may rest in Hussein's brass-knuckled - and sometimes white-knuckled - history. Born dirt-poor and unwanted in a Tikrit backwater village, Hussein was able to violently claw his way out of an abused childhood to the top of the ruling Baath Party.
He has survived numerous coup and assassination attempts, a devastating war with Iran in the 1980s, and then took on the US and UN in the 1991 Gulf War. He further survived a widespread, postwar rebellion, followed by more than a decade of sanctions that have impoverished his oil-rich nation.
"We may look at [the current US build-up] and say they odds are really long, and Saddam's answer would be: 'I've been doing this all my life,' says Mr. Krepinevich.
In his first television interview since 1990, which aired on the BBC Tuesday, Hussein said that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction nor any link to Al Qaeda. The CIA assessed last fall, in fact, that Iraq posed little threat if unprovoked. But the agency determined that any conflict that sought regime change was likely to result in Hussein's use of any remaining chemical or biological weapons against US forces and Israel.
Hussein is "not a martyr," and "has this funny kind of optimism," says Jerrold Post, a political psychologist and former US government analyst at George Washington University, who has focused on profiling Hussein for some 15 years.
A formative moment was the 1991 war, which was widely cast in the West as a decisive defeat for Iraq. For Hussein, surviving meant a coveted international role. Palestinians cheered from rooftops as Iraqi Scud missiles struck the Israeli capital; an Arab leader was standing up to the US and its close Jewish ally.
"He was filled with dreams of glory, to follow in the path of Saladin and liberate Jerusalem from the Crusaders ... to be a hero of the Arab world," says Mr. Post. "This was an explosion of narcissism for him. Kuwait quickly went off the screen, and he was a major world leader."
Such grandiose views and Hussein's rule over a deeply ingrained, all-seeing police state are coupled with unreliable information about how aware or isolated Hussein and his people are from the outside world. Iraq is "where you imposed East European knowledge and discipline on Arab wile," says Said Aburish, author of "Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge," who once worked for the Iraqi leader.
"The fact that people can't gather to conspire, combined with the fact that Iraqis have been let down by the US on more than one occasion, means you reach an unknown: Will the Iraqi people respond to an American invasion, and how?" Mr. Aburish says.
Before that moment, few Iraqis will raise their heads above the parapet. Aburish notes that Shiite Muslim opponents of the regime killed a stand-in for Hussein in the early 1980s, and the leader "jumped in his car and ran to the television station to say: 'I'm still around.' " Today "not a trace" exists of that village of 10,000 people north of Baghdad, says Aburish.
Ruthlessness and patience have served Saddam well, so far. "I don't see him as a chess player, which is anticipating moves ahead," says Simon Henderson, a biographer of Hussein in England. "I always see him playing a long game, because he thinks things will work out for him."
As he stalls, the ball has already bounced several times in Hussein's favor - a new crisis has emerged with North Korea, European leaders are divided over war, and antiwar protests have gathered pace worldwide. "A statistician should tell him that the next few bounces are going to be away from him," Henderson says.
The moment it is clear to Hussein that the game has changed could be a dangerous one. "When does he begin to shift to conflict mode, and out of diplomatic mode? asks Krepinevich. "Once that occurs, the restrictions on his actions become almost nil. He has very little incentive to hold back on anything."
The risks of that moment are high, since they will almost certainly come when Hussein's manifestly strong pressure cooker is at bursting point.
"The more stress he is under, the more we can expect to see him becoming more paranoid, more ready to strike out at enemies, real and imagined, while unwinding and disillusioning those around him," says political psychologist Post.
Hussein's personality, Post says, is marked by extreme self-absorption, grandiosity, paranoia - "not crazy, but ready to be attacked, and to attack" - with no constraints on conscience, and a willingness to use "whatever aggression is necessary without a backward look."
"It's sane, but it is the most dangerous combination," says Post. "This is not a man who will go gently into that good night."