It was mere days after he had grabbed power when Saddam Hussein summoned 400 top Iraqi officials to his presence, announcing he had uncovered a plot against the ruling party. The conspirators, he said, were in that very room.

As the 42-year-old coolly puffed on a cigar, the plotters' names were read out. As each was called, secret police led them away, executing 22. To make sure his countrymen got the message, Saddam videotaped the whole thing and sent copies around the country.

The plot was a lie. But in a few terrifying minutes on July 22, 1979, Saddam eliminated his potential rivals — consolidating the power he wielded for almost three decades as Iraq's president, until a U.S.-led coalition drove him out in 2003.

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The brutality helped him survive war with Iran, defeat in Kuwait, rebellions by northern Kurds and southern Shiites, international sanctions, plots and conspiracies.

In the end, however, it was his undoing. Trusting few except kin, Saddam surrounded himself with sycophants, selected for loyalty rather than intellect and ability. When he was forced out, he left a country impoverished — despite its vast oil wealth — and roiling with long suppressed ethnic and sectarian tensions.

His conviction Sunday of crimes against humanity — and his sentencing to death by hanging — were just the latest, and perhaps one of the last, scenes in a long and bloody drama.

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 his 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 2003, bearded, disheveled and with his arms in the air.

Image and illusion were his important tools.

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. Yet his style was closer to a backwoods clan chief — doling out favors in return for absolute loyalty while dealing harshly with detractors.

He promoted the illusion of a powerful Iraq — with the world's fourth largest army and weapons of terrible destruction. Yet his army crumbled in weeks when confronted by the Americans and their allies in Kuwait in 1991.

And in 2003, his capital of Baghdad — the vaunted regime fortress ringed by steel with inhabitants supposely eager to sacrifice themselves — fell to a single American brigade task force.

Saddam's weapons of mass destruction also 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, he squandered the money on vast palaces.

It was a universe away from the harsh poverty he was born into, 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 and lived with his maternal uncle, a staunchly anti-British, anti-Semitic figure whose daughter would become Saddam's wife years later.

Under his uncle's influence, Saddam at age 20 joined the Baath Party, a radical, secular Arab nationalist group. A year later, he fled to Cairo after taking part in an attempt to assassinate the country's ruler and was sentenced to death in absentia.

Saddam returned four years later after the ruler was overthrown by the Baath. But the Baath leadership was itself ousted eight months later and Saddam was imprisoned. He escaped in 1967 and took charge of the underground party's internal security.

In July 1968, the Baath party came back to power under the leadership of Saddam's cousin, Gen. Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. Saddam — his deputy — systematically purged key party figures, deported thousands of Shiites of Iranian origin and supervised the state takeover of Iraq's oil industry.

But when Al-Bakr decided in 1979 to seek unity with neighboring Syria, Saddam forced his cousin out — and then purged his rivals six days later. Hundreds more were killed in the following months.

Saddam then turned his attention to the country's Shiite majority, whose clerical leaders had long opposed his secular policies, and to neighboring Shiite Iran.

On Sept. 22, 1980, Iraqi forces crossed the border, launching a war against Iran that would last for eight years, cost hundreds of thousands of lives and devastate Saddam's plans to transform Iraq into a developed, prosperous country.

After the Iranians counterattacked, Saddam turned to the United States, France and Britain for weapons, which those countries gladly sold to prevent an outright Iranian victory. They turned a blind eye when Saddam ruthlessly struck against Iraqi Kurds for helping Iran.

An estimated 5,000 Kurds died in a chemical weapons attack on the town of Halabja in March 1988.

Only two years after making peace with Iran, Saddam invaded Kuwait, whose rulers had refused to forgive Iraq's war debt. The United Nations imposed economic sanctions, and in early 1991, a U.S.-led coalition attacked in what Saddam famously called "the mother of all battles."

The Iraqis were quickly driven out of Kuwait, but Saddam boasted that his regime's political survival was proof that Iraq had won its war against America — a message that won him stature among many Arabs.

The war triggered uprisings among Iraq's Shiites, but they were brutally crushed by Saddam. The Kurds, more lucky, carved out a self-ruled area in the north under U.S. and British air cover.

The sanctions were not lifted because the United States accused Saddam of retaining weapons of mass destruction — and they remained in effect until the 2002 invasion, impoverishing a people who had been among the Mideast's most prosperous.

The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States focused attention on Saddam as a sponsor of terrorism. But it was his refusal to meet U.N. demands for disclosure of his illegal weapons program that provided the U.S.-led coalition with a justification for war.

The American-led force struck on March 20, 2003. Within three weeks, Iraq's army had collapsed and Baghdad had fallen. Saddam fled into hiding, and his sons, Odai and Qusai, were killed in a gunbattle with the Americans in Mosul in July 2003.

When Saddam himself was captured in 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, Saddam's country already was engulfed in an anti-American insurgency — a fight that has since spread into a brutal civil war.

For Saddam, the trial was a pulpit to rail against the American presence. In the early sessions, he strutted into court, grasping a Quran.

"How can a judge like yourself accept a situation like this?" Saddam barked at one point. "This game must not continue. If you want Saddam Hussein's neck, you can have it."

But as the trial dragged on, Saddam's manner seemed to calm as he realized the inevitability of the conviction and the death sentence that followed.