— -- Until his capture on Dec. 13, 2003, Saddam Hussein had been called the quintessential survivor.
For months after President Bush announced the end of major military operations in Iraq on May 1, and with a $25 million reward from Washington on his head, the strongman of Iraq remained unaccounted for.
But the mystery of Saddam's whereabouts was solved when the senior U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, announced to a press conference in Baghdad on Dec. 13: "We got him."
Saddam was found hiding in the cellar of a home in a town near Tikrit by U.S. forces.
The Iraq war began with a U.S. attempt to kill Saddam in a barrage of satellite-guided bombs and cruise missiles on a leadership compound in Baghdad where he was believed to be spending the night.
But he survived the attack and a number of audio taped messages, purportedly by Saddam, surfaced in news rooms across the Arab world.
In what many U.S. experts said were genuine tapes of the Iraqi leader's voice, Saddam had been calling on his people to resist the occupying U.S. forces.
Master of Survival
Survival — at extraordinary cost — has been a defining factor in Saddam's life.
In February 1991, during the first Gulf War, huddled in an underground bunker with his country smoldering in ruins around him, he seemed buried for good.
U.N. forces had devastated Iraq in the six-week Persian Gulf War: Sewage systems and telephone lines were out, electrical grids were down, and roads were impassable.
Harsh international sanctions and reparation debts hobbled recovery prospects for the oil-rich republic of Iraq. But Saddam resurfaced, unrepentant for the failed invasion of Kuwait and its enormous toll.
Son of Poor Farmers
Saddam grew up in Auja, a village of mud-brick huts northwest of Baghdad. His parents were poor farmers, but inspired by his uncle Khayrallah Tulfah, an Iraqi army officer and crusader for Arab unity, Saddam gravitated to politics as a teenager.
Saddam joined the socialist Baath party when he was 19. He made his mark three years later when he participated in a 1959 assassination attempt against Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Karim Kassim. Saddam was shot in the leg during the botched effort and fled the country for several years, first to Syria, then Egypt.
In 1968, he helped lead the revolt that finally brought the Baath party to power under Gen. Ahmed Hassan Bakr. In the process, he landed the vice president's post, from which he built an elaborate network of secret police to root out dissidents. Eleven years later, in the wake of what has been widely characterized as a coup, Bakr announced his resignation and relinquished the presidency to Saddam.
Soon, the streets of Iraq were plastered with 20-foot-high portraits of the new leader.
A Stab at Glory
Saddam's years as a revolutionary left him keenly aware of the danger of dissent. Shortly after taking office, he purged and murdered dozens of government officials suspected of disloyalty. In the early 1980s, he used chemical weapons to crush a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq.
Saddam's power struggles extended well beyond his country's borders.
In 1980, he invaded Iran, launching an eight-year war that ended in stalemate.
In August 1990, he invaded the oil sheikdom of Kuwait, proclaiming it Iraq's 19th province. He defied U.N. directives to retreat from Kuwait, provoking U.N. sanctions, and then military action in the form of the Persian Gulf War, which he called "the mother of all battles."
The conflict ended with Iraqi forces fleeing from Kuwait, decimated. Saddam accepted U.N Security Council Resolution 687, which indicated the terms for a cease-fire, and conditions for the lifting of sanctions, and then set about rebuilding his republic.
Saddam's recovery was difficult, in part because of his failure to satisfy U.N. criteria for the lifting of sanctions. Isolation, combined with a ravaged infrastructure, prompted a mass exodus of its most talented citizens — only deepening Iraq's woes.
The U.N.'s foremost demand was that Saddam assure the world community that he was not trying to construct weapons of mass destruction. He kicked out U.N. weapons inspectors in 1998, and then engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse over the issue.
Saddam managed to reinforce his power base by other means. Previously an avowedly secular leader, he sought to adopt the mantle of a Muslim leader, and reinforce his ties with other Arab states.
He also attempted to gain more support by offering trading partners attractive oil deals, trade and investment opportunities, and pledging to repay past debts. Russia, France, China, and Turkey all advocated easing the U.N. sanctions on Iraq.
In contrast, the United States and Britain remained staunch opponents of his regime. The countries maintained military patrols in the no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq, keeping Saddam limited to one-third of his country, and their diplomats called for the continuation of sanctions and advocated his ouster.
The debate intensified after terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. The United States declared a "war on terror," invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban government that had been harboring Osama bin Laden, leader of the al Qaeda terror network and the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Iraq and Saddam never were accused of any involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Nevertheless, amid the ongoing anti-terror war, U.S. President Bush said in January 2002 that Iraq, North Korea and Iran constituted "an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world."
Saddam agreed in 2002 to the return of U.N. weapons inspectors, as Iraqi leaders declared their country free of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. After several months, the inspectors had not produced evidence of the banned weapons, and said they needed more time to complete their work.
However, over international objections, the United States and its allies declared Iraq was not cooperating sufficiently and that time for inspections had expired. On March 20 (March 19 ET), 2003, U.S. bombs blasted a Baghdad residential complex where Saddam was believed to be meeting. Wider U.S. air and ground assaults followed.
Bush is the son of the president who led a coalition of countries to oust Saddam from Kuwait in 1991, and Iraqi agents allegedly targeted his father and wife in a 1993 bomb plot, but he denied his hard line against Saddam was motivated by personal hatred.
"The fact that he tried to kill my father and my wife shows the nature of the man: He's cold-blooded, he's a dictator, and he's a tyrant," Bush told reporters on March 3, 2003. "The decision I'm making and have made to disarm Saddam Hussein is based on the security of the American people."
But to Saddam, evidently, it was personal. After the initial March 20 attack, he appeared on Iraqi television, looking disheveled and wearing thick glasses, and denounced the "little, evil Bush."
There was no obvious evidence as to when the speech was taped, fueling reports Saddam had been killed or injured in the bombing. But in subsequently televised speeches, a more poised-looking Saddam obliquely referred to battlefield developments. Still, even if he lived through the initial attack, other bombs aimed squarely at Saddam and his hideouts followed.
By the time U.S. forces swept into Baghdad in early April, there was no sign of Saddam, and television images broadcast worldwide showed Iraqis and American forces toppling a massive statue of the dictator in a public square, dismembering it and dragging it through the streets. Looters ransacked Iraqi government offices, Saddam's palaces and those of his most senior advisors.
In one town house, U.S. forces even found what was believed to be Saddam's swanky 1960s-style love nest — a mirrored bedroom, lamps shaped like women, and fantasy-art paintings featuring scantily-clad, bodacious women and buff warriors.