His portrait covered buildings all over Iraq as a reminder of his powerful grip. But Saddam Hussein was eventually made to pay for his crimes against humanity.
Saddam Hussein has the dubious distinction of being the best-known Middle Eastern dictator. He ruled Iraq from 1979 until his overthrow and capture by a US-led coalition, in 2003.
Born to a peasant family near Tikrit, the teenage Saddam immersed himself in the anti-British, Arab nationalist ideology of the day. Failing to complete high school, Saddam joined the Ba'ath Party in Baghdad, who were plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Abdel-Karim Qassem. The plan failed and Saddam fled across the desert on a donkey to Egypt.
Four years later in 1963, the Ba'ath Party did overthrow Qassem, Saddam returned home and started to push for power, but within months there was a counter-coup.
Jailed until the Ba'athists siezed power again in 1968, Saddam worked as a henchman for his distant relative, Hassan Al-Bakr, the new Iraqi president and chairman of the Revolutionary Council. Saddam rose to Vice-President and began "purifying" the government: all dissidents were imprisoned, tortured or executed.
Saddam forced the ailing President to retire a decade later, and had himself sworn in as leader of the republic. To ensure his control, Saddam ordered the execution of dozens of top ranking soldiers.
In an attempt to wrest the Shatt-al-Arab waterway from Iran, Saddam, armed by the West, declared war on Tehran in 1980. The battle ended in a stalemate, eight years later, with an estimated one million declared dead.
Thwarted in expanding Iraq’s influence to the east, Saddam claimed Kuwait as the 19th province of Iraq, citing historical justification,
His soldiers crossed the Kuwaiti border in August 1990, only to be bombed into retreat by a huge US-led coalition four months later. The campaign was known as Desert Storm.
With the tacit encouragement of Washington, the Iraqi Shia and the Kurds rebelled against Saddam. The dissenters were massacred by Saddam’s military, and the US reneged on its pledge to support the uprising.
Since the international coalition did not attempt to topple Saddam, his regime continued to brutally suppress Kurds and Shiites. Although Saddam survived attempted coups in 1992 and 1993, and a major defection in 1995, UN sanctions hurt Iraq and prevented its resurgence as a power in the Gulf.
However, the United Nations failed to compel Saddam to comply with a string of special resolutions obliging Iraq to destroy its nuclear, chemical and biological stockpiles and research facilities under supervision.
During the 1990s, Saddam repeatedly challenged the Security Council over the implementation of these resolutions, never giving an inch strategically but always leaving enough wriggle room for last-minute tactical concessions when confronted with the threat of force.
Things came to a head after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Though the US administration refrained from linking Saddam directly to the atrocity, it made the Iraqi leader, who applauded the attacks as a heroic act, a central target of President Bush's “war on terrorism.”
In November 2002, the UN passed Resolution 1441 which charged Iraq of violating Security Council resolutions regarding non-conventional disarmament and warned that Iraq “will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violation of its obligations.”
As Saddam continued to defy the warnings, the United States - together with a number of key allies - launched an attack which quickly toppled Iraq's Ba'athist regime. Saddam himself managed to escape and to remain in hiding for some time, but was eventually captured and put in prison pending a war crimes trial by the first democratically elected government in Iraq's history.
On November 5, 2006, Saddam Hussein was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by hanging. Saddam's half brother, Barzan Ibrahim, and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court in 1982, were convicted of similar charges as well.
The verdict and sentencing were both appealed but subsequently affirmed by Iraq's Supreme Court of Appeals. On 30 December 2006, Saddam was hanged.