Soon after taking control, he led his country into a ruthless war against Iran, while managing to consolidate his grip on a country torn by internal conflicts.
For a decade, he was seen in many Western capitals as an ally - albeit an unsavoury one.
But when he invaded Kuwait in August 1990, US support turned into enmity. Almost overnight, Saddam Hussein became the most hated figure in the US, only recently being overtaken by Usama bin Ladin.
The Bush administration accuses his regime of cooperating with al-Qaida despite widespread acknowledgement by political observers that Saddam and bin Ladin are ideological enemies.
A taped message, believed to be from the al-Qaida commander, branded Saddam Hussein an infidel.
The message, broadcast on Aljazeera in February, urged Muslims to support the Iraqi people and resist any attack on their country, but it said Saddam's secular "socialist" government had lost credibility.
"Socialists are infidels wherever they are," it said.
Saddam Hussein was born on 28 April 1937 to a poor Arab Sunni Muslim family in the village of Auja. It is not clear if his father, Hussain al-Majid, abandoned the family or died before he was born.
The future Iraqi president rose to
prominence in the mid-1950s
Whatever the case, Saddam was raised by his mother and his shepherd stepfather. He then moved to Baghdad and lived with his uncle, Khair Allah Talfah, soon falling under the sway of his nationalist leanings.
Saddam Hussein later headed the former ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party, which he joined in 1956, quickly climbing to the top.
But before he gained the leadership, he participated in an unsuccessful 1959 assassination attempt against Iraqi Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim, in which Saddam was shot in the leg.
Saddam fled to his hometown of Tikrit, 170km in northern Baghdad.
Exile and jail
Never feeling safe, even in his heartland, Saddam left Tikrit for Syria and then to Egypt. Ten months later, in December 1961, a military tribunal in Baghdad sentenced him to death for taking part in the botched assassination attempt.
He returned to Iraq after the Baath party conducted a coup d’etat on 8 February 1963. But was thrown in jail with other accomplices in October 1964 over differences with the new Iraqi president, Abd al-Salam Arif, and Baath party leaders.
In 1966, Saddam was elected as the party’s secretary general while he was still in detention. In the same year, he and other inmates escaped from prison as they were being taken to court.
Two years later, Saddam played a significant role in planning and carrying out the revolt that ousted Abd al-Rahman Arif, who had succeeded his late brother to the presidency.
Coming to power
The Baath party thus came to power in 1968 under General Ahmad Hasan Bakr, and Saddam, who was 32 at the time, held the vice president's post for 11 years.
To expand his power, Saddam Hussein appointed members from his Tikriti clan to high-ranking posts in the government. At that time, he was in charge of internal security, which he used to build a strong and elaborate security network.
The Baath party boss built up a
formidable security network
Saddam orchestrated the nationalisation of the Iraqi oil industry in 1972.
He also signed an agreement in March 1975 with the Shah of Iran, who was a staunch US ally, changing the demarcation of the borders between Iran and Iraq in the Shatt al-Arab waterway.
Both agreed to have an equal share of the channel in return for Iran’s cessation of its support to the Kurdish opposition in northern Iraq.
In his own country, Saddam implemented a huge project to eliminate illiteracy by imposing up to three years jail on those failing to show up to class.
On 6 June 1979, Bakr announced his resignation and relinquished the presidency to Saddam.
Since then, the regime carried out an unspecified number of executions in a bid to keep Saddam' grip on power. The Iraqi president has brutally put down Kurdish rebellions in the north and Shia uprisings in the south.
The executions have extended to family members. Saddam Hussein is married to Sajida Khair Allah Talfah and has two sons and three daughters.
Two of his daughters were married to the brothers Saddam Kamil and Hussain Kamil, who defected with their families to Jordan in 1995. The brothers returned to Iraq after they were pardoned by the Iraqi president but were killed upon their arrival to Baghdad.
While Iraqi media reports said they were killed by their tribes that were outraged by their defection, other reports said they were killed by Saddam and his sons, Uday and Qusay.
War and weapons
With the technical assistance of the West, Saddam used chemical weapons against his own civilians. The most publicised incident was in Halabja, a pre-dominantly Kurdish town in the northern province of Sulaimaniya.
A suspected Kurdish victim found
in a mass grave uncovered in July
Led by lieutenant Ali Hasan al-Majid, the infamous Chemical Ali, Iraqi air forces bombarded the town with gas poisons on 16 March 1988 killing up to 5000 people. The event was used – 15 years later - by the US to justify the war on Iraq.
The Iraqi military also reportedly killed thousands of Iranians with chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War from 1983 to 1988. During that period, Washington strongly supported Saddam and provided him with intelligence assistance.
But that alliance evaporated when Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990 after a dispute over oil prices and the control of oilfields located along their shared border.
Many in the US criticised then President George Bush senior – the present leader's father – for stopping short of toppling his Iraqi adversary.
The capture of Saddam by US forces on 13 December 2003 has brought that question to a dramatic conclusion.