BAGHDAD, Iraq – Within days of taking power, Saddam Hussein summoned about 400 top officials and announced he had uncovered a plot against the ruling party. The conspirators, he said, were in that very room.
As the 42-year-old Saddam coolly puffed on a cigar, names of the plotters were read out. As each name was called, secret police led them away. Some of the bewildered men cried out "long live Saddam Hussein" in a futile display of loyalty.
Twenty-two of them were executed. To make sure Iraqis got the word, Saddam videotaped the entire proceeding and distributed copies across the country.
The plot claim was a lie. But in a few terrifying minutes on July 22, 1979, Saddam eliminated his potential rivals, consolidating the power he wielded until the Americans and their allies drove him from office a generation later.
Saddam, who was hanged Saturday at age 69, ruled Iraq with singular ruthlessness. No one was safe. His two sons-in-law were killed on Saddam's orders after they defected to Jordan but returned in 1996 after receiving guarantees of safety.
Such brutality kept him in power through war with Iran, defeat in Kuwait, rebellions by northern Kurds and southern Shiite Muslims, international sanctions, plots and conspiracies.
In the end, however, brutality was his undoing. Trusting few except kin, Saddam surrounded himself with sycophants, selected for loyalty rather than intellect and ability.
And when he was forced out in April 2003, he left a country impoverished — despite vast oil wealth — and roiling with long suppressed ethnic and sectarian hatred.
On his rare public appearances, crowds would greet him with chants of "we sacrifice our blood and souls for you Saddam." But gradually, he became isolated from the Iraqi people, within a diminished circle of trusted advisers drawn mostly from his close family or his clan.
He ended up dragged from a hole by American soldiers in December 2001, bearded, disheveled and with his arms in the air. The pistol he kept to fight to the end was never fired.
Image and illusion were important tools for Saddam.
He sought to build an image as an all-wise, all-powerful champion of the Arab nation. His model was the great 12th century warrior Saladin, who captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders and, coincidentally, was born like Saddam in the Tikrit area of northern Iraq.
Yet his style was closer to an Iraqi clan chief, doling out favors in return for absolute loyalty while dealing harshly with anyone who questioned his authority.
He promoted the illusion of a powerful Iraq — with the world's fourth largest army and weapons of terrible destruction.
Yet it was all hollow. His army crumbled in weeks when confronted by the Americans and their allies in Kuwait in 1991.
And in 2003, his capital — the vaunted regime fortress supposedly ringed by steel with inhabitants eager to sacrifice themselves in its defense — fell to a single U.S. brigade task force.
Saddam's weapons of mass destruction proved a bluff to keep the Iranians, the Syrians, the Israelis — and the Americans — at bay. His own scientists didn't have the nerve to tell him that his dreams of weaponry were beyond the country's industrial capability.
Instead, Saddam squandered vast sums on opulent palaces with marble hallways, plush carpeting, expensive antique furniture.
All of that was a universe from the harsh poverty into which Saddam was born on April 28, 1937, in the village of Ouja near Tikrit. His father, a landless shepherd, died or disappeared before he was born. His stepfather, Ibrahim al-Hassan, treated Saddam harshly.
The young Saddam ran away as a boy and lived with his maternal uncle, Khairallah Talfah, a stridently anti-British, anti-Semitic man whose daughter, Sajida, would become Saddam's wife years later.
Under his uncle's influence, Saddam joined the Baath Party, a radical, secular Arab nationalist organization, at age 20. A year later, he fled to Egypt after taking part in an attempt to assassinate the country's ruler, Gen. Abdul-Karim Qassim, and was sentenced to death in absentia.
Saddam returned four years later after Qassim was overthrown by the Baath. But the Baath leadership was itself ousted within eight months and Saddam was imprisoned. He escaped in 1967 and took charge of the underground Baath party's secret internal security organization.
He swore he would never tolerate the internal dissent that he blamed for the party losing power.
In July 1968, Baath returned to power under the leadership of Gen. Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, who appointed Saddam, his cousin, as his deputy. Saddam systematically purged key party figures, deported thousands of Shiites of Iranian origin, supervised the state takeover of Iraq's oil industry, land reform and modernization — becoming the real power behind al-Bakr.
Al-Bakr decided in 1979 to seek unity with neighboring Syria, which was also under Baath party rule. Syria's president would become al-Bakr's deputy, and Saddam would be marginalized. Saddam forced his cousin to resign — and then purged his rivals in a party meeting six days later. Hundreds of others in the party and army were executed in the months that followed.
Saddam then turned his attention to the country's Shiite majority, whose clerical leaders had long opposed his secular policies. Saddam's fears of a Shiite challenge rose after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in Shiite-dominated Iran in 1979.
On Sept. 22, 1980, Iraqi troops crossed the Iranian border, launching a war that would last eight years, cost hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides and devastated Saddam's plans to transform Iraq into a developed, prosperous country.
In the longest conventional war of the 20th century, the two countries fired missiles at each other's cities, Iran sent waves of youngsters to death on the front lines, and Iraqi warplanes bombed Iranian schools and even a jetliner unloading passengers at an Iranian airport.
In launching his war, Saddam evoked the memory of the 7th century Battle of Qadisiyyah, when Arab armies decisively defeated the Persians, opening what is now Iran to the Muslim faith. The 1980s war became known as "Saddam's Qadisiyyah," and for years after the conflict ended in stalemate, Iraqi currency still carried scenes from the ancient battle — along with Saddam's image.
After the Iranians counterattacked, Saddam turned to the United States, France and Britain for weapons, which those countries gladly sold him to prevent an outright Iranian victory. They turned a blind eye when Saddam ruthlessly struck against Iraqi Kurds, who lived in the border area and were dealing secretly with the Iranians.
An estimated 5,000 Kurds died in a chemical weapons attack on the town of Halabja in March 1988. The United States suggested at the time that the Iranians may have been responsible.
Only two years after making peace with Iran, Saddam invaded Kuwait, whose rulers had refused to forgive Iraq's war debt and opposed increases in oil prices that Iraq desperately needed to recover from the conflict with Iran.
Iraqi nationalists had never accepted the existence of an independent Kuwait, which they believed was established by British imperialism. Kuwait was annexed as the 19th province of Iraq.
The United Nations imposed economic sanctions on Iraq and a U.S.-led coalition attacked. "The great duel, the mother of all battles, has begun. The dawn of victory nears as this great showdown begins," Saddam said on Iraqi radio on Jan. 17, 1991.
But the Iraqis were driven out of Kuwait. The 1991 war triggered uprisings among Iraq's Shiites, brutally crushed by Saddam, and the Kurds, who carved out a self-ruled area under U.S. and British air cover.
Saddam boasted his survival was proof Iraq had won its war against America, a message that won him stature among many Arabs. But the sanctions were not lifted because the United States accused Saddam of retaining weapons of mass destruction.
His brutality was starkly illustrated when the defecting sons-in-law were killed. Their widows, however, forgave him. "He was a very good father, loving, has a big heart," Raghad Saddam Hussein told CNN in August 2003 while Saddam was on the run from U.S. forces. "He had so many feelings and he was very tender with all of us," Rana Hussein said in the same interview.
Saddam also sought to be a force in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In April 1990, hinting he had secret super-weapons, he declared: "By God, we will make the fire eat up half of Israel." During the Gulf War he fired Scud missiles into Israel, and during the Palestinian uprising a decade later he paid cash grants to families of suicide bombers.
The U.N. sanctions remained in effect until his regime collapsed in 2003, devastating Iraq's economy and impoverishing a people who had been among the most prosperous in the Middle East. They also set the stage for the collapse of the regime itself.
The Sept. 11 terror attack on the U.S. focused attention on Saddam as a sponsor of terrorism. His refusal to meet U.N. demands for full disclosure of his illegal weapons program provided a justification for war.
As U.S.-led forces massed, Saddam claimed America's "devastating brutal instinct" had been harnessed by Zionism.
"Halt your evil doings against the mother of civilization ... the cradle and the birthplace of prophets and messengers," he warned the United States. "The entire nation will rise up in defense of its right to life, of its role and of anything it holds sacred ... Their arrows will be on the wrong track or will recoil to their breasts, God willing ... The martyrs of the nation will turn into green birds in paradise as the Merciful has promised."
An American-led force invaded on March 20, 2003. Within three weeks, Iraq's army had collapsed and Baghdad had fallen. U.S. Marines tore down Saddam's statue in the center of Baghdad and the dictator fled to his northern homeland.
His sons, Odai and Qusai, and a grandson were killed in a gunbattle with the Americans in Mosul in July 2003. When Saddam himself was captured the following December, Iraqis cheered and fired shots in the air. "The former dictator of Iraq will face the justice he denied to millions," President Bush said.
But as he went on trial in October 2005 before an Iraqi judge, his country was engulfed in an anti-American insurgency.
For Saddam, the trial was a pulpit to rail against the U.S. presence in Iraq in hopes of winning the approval of history if not an acquittal. In the early sessions, he strutted into court, grasping a Quran in one arm while waving the other at his fellow defendants.
"How can a judge like yourself accept a situation like this?" Saddam barked. "This game must not continue. If you want Saddam Hussein's neck, you can have it."
But the trial dragged on, the chief judge was replaced, and Saddam's manner calmed as he realized the inevitability of conviction and the death sentence that followed.