His father died before he was born and his mother is said to have been suicidal when she was carrying him, trying to abort the pregnancy.
His stepfather allegedly beat him, and in high school, he was a tough guy, immersed in revolutionary politics. At 22, he was tapped by the leaders of the Socialist Ba'ath party to assassinate the then-prime minister. The coup failed and Saddam Hussein fled to Cairo.
When he returned, some years later, he returned to rule. By 1979 he was president, prime minister and commander in chief. He quickly purged any would-be competitors, arresting scores of cabinet ministers, bureaucrats and high ranking members of the Ba'ath party. Twenty-one were executed on a single day in August of 1979.
A year later, Saddam Hussein went to war against his neighbor, Iran. He used chemical weapons against his own people, the Kurds in the north, as well as on the Iranians. Hundreds of thousands of people died in a devastating eight-year war that cost each country deeply.
By the end of the war, Saddam Hussein had built the fourth largest army in the world.
Oil revenues funded his military research and it is believed that by the time his forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, Iraqi scientists were getting closer to a nuclear device.
U.S. President George H.W. Bush told Americans, "Iraq cannot be allowed to benefit from its invasion of Kuwait."
On the night of January 16, 1991, coalition planes and American cruise missiles were launched at Iraq to force the Iraqi army from Kuwait. The next day, Saddam Hussein appeared on Iraqi TV and said that the greatest of all battles had started. By God's grace, Saddam said, Iraq would emerge from the conflict victorious.
But the ground war lasted barely 100 hours before Saddam Hussein was forced to withdraw his army from Kuwait.
He was momentarily weakened. Encouraged by U.S.-sponsored radio broadcasts, some Iraqis, believed the United States would come to their assistance and rose up against Hussein. The leader struck down the rebellion viciously.
Economic sanctions led by the United States and imposed by the United Nations continued. They caused enormous hardship to the Iraqi people, but Saddam seemed politically impervious.
In 1998, Saddam called off all cooperation with the U.N. weapon inspectors, eliminating all further monitoring of the nuclear and biological sites. After their departure, the United States and Great Britain launched "Operation Desert Fox" to destroy potential weapons of mass destruction facilities from the air.
In 2002, faced with a new determination by the United Nations, Saddam finally allowed weapons inspectors back into the country.
The United States, growing impatient with the weapons inspectors, insisted on removing Saddam's regime once and for all.
In 2003, the United States, Britain and other allied forces launched a full-scale war, called "Operation Iraqi Freedom," against the man who had once been an American ally. Within three weeks, Saddam's reign was over. A statue of Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square fell to cheers from Iraqis.
Saddam, however, would elude capture for nearly nine months before the U.S. military found the former ruler underground, hiding in a spider hole near his hometown of Tikrit.
Upon the capture, a triumphant President George W. Bush told Americans, "For the vast majority of Iraqi citizens who wish to live as free men and women, this event brings further assurance that the torture chambers and the secret police are gone forever."
Hussein was charged with a variety of war crimes and his trial began just days after Iraqis voted on a new constitution. As always, the leader remained defiant until the end.