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 did so to rule. By 1979, he was Iraq's 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 Iraqis were executed on a single day in August of 1979.
A year later, Saddam Hussein went to war against neighboring 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 the completion of a nuclear device.
U.S. President George H.W. Bush told Americans, "Iraq cannot be allowed to benefit from its invasion of Kuwait."
On a January night in 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 Gulf War ground conflict lasted barely 100 hours before Saddam Hussein was forced to withdraw his army from Kuwait.
The leader 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 would strike 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. weapons inspectors, eliminating all further monitoring of 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, 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 against the man who had once been an American ally. The Iraq war was under way and within three weeks, Saddam's reign was over. A statue of Saddam in Baghdad's Firdos Square fell to cheers from onlooking 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 his 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. In July 2004, he told the court that it was President Bush who should be put on trial. He also insisted that he was still the president of Iraq.
The former dictator is alleged to have committed innumerable crimes during his 23-year rule, but his death sentence came after he was convicted in the 1982 killing of 148 Shiite Muslims.
The Shiites had been detained after attempting to assassinate Saddam in the northern city of Dujail.
Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq with an iron fist for 24 years, was hanged shortly after 10 p.m. Eastern time. He was 69.