For all his 69 years, Saddam Hussein defied death.
Born to poverty, he endured beatings as a boy. As a young rebel he tried to assassinate an Iraqi leader, was wounded and managed to escape. And as Iraq's dictator for more than two decades, he made sure his meals were examined, even X-rayed, to avoid being poisoned by any number of enemies who might try.
Accounts of a life that ended on the gallows held that Saddam took much pride in his given first name—an unusual one, meaning "he who confronts."
Many experts never expected him to be taken alive, but U.S. troops found him hiding in a hole near his hometown of Tikrit in December 2003.
Throughout his rule, Saddam stoked and polished the image of a fighter who would not surrender.
"The classic gladiator, a killer in a world in which he sees people either triumphing over others or being defeated," former State Department lawyer Abraham D. Sofaer told the Kansas City Star in 2003.
"He has the most traumatized background of any leader I've profiled," said Jerrold Post, a psychiatry professor and former CIA profiler. "His history of defiance—`I'm going to get you before you get me'—has gotten him points in the Arab world for standing up against a superior force."
As a warrior, Saddam proved self-destructive:
_His 1980 incursion into neighboring Iran, in a border waterway dispute, led to an eight-year war that reached no conclusive result. The conflict crippled Iraq's economy and cost 1.5 million Iraqi and Iranian lives. At least 5,000 died when Saddam allegedly ordered poison gas dumped on Kurds in Halabja, in northern Iraq, to punish his countrymen for siding with Iran.
_His 1990 invasion of oil-rich Kuwait spurred a global coalition, led by the United States, to drive his forces out. In Saddam's bid to crush Shiite and Kurdish insurgencies after the Persian Gulf War, his troops are thought to have killed as many as 300,000 Iraqis.
Saddam was born in 1937 near the banks of the Tigris River outside the northern city of Tikrit. A monarchy planted by the British ruled Iraq.
He was the peasant child of Subha Tulfah, who reportedly worked as a clairvoyant. Little is known of his father, Hussein al-Majid, who died shortly before his birth, Post said.
A stepfather, known around the village as "Hassan the Liar," whacked Saddam with an asphalt-covered stick and kept him out of school, according to Con Coughlin's book, "Saddam: King of Terror."
"The shame of his humble origins was to become the driving force of his ambition," wrote Coughlin.
Sent to live with relatives at age 10, the boy took a liking to his mother's brother, Khairallah Tulfah, an Arab nationalist and author of a pamphlet titled "Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and Flies."
Saddam's upbringing was secular. As a Sunni Muslim, he belonged to one of Iraq's minority sects. Shiite Muslims dominated in the south.
In 1956, Saddam, 19, joined the secular pan-Arab Baath Socialist Party, then a tiny organization whose brochures touted independence from Western colonialism. Baathists were secular thinkers mostly from Iraq's professional circles.
The Baathists in 1959 tapped Saddam to provide armed cover for a group of conspirators who opened fire on the car of Iraq's leader, Gen. Abdul Kareem Qassem, who survived the attack.
Return fire wounded in Saddam in the leg, but he escaped capture.
For four years he lived in exile in Egypt, where he finished secondary school at 24. It was one of the few times he traveled outside Iraq.
Saddam returned to Iraq after the Baath Party seized power in 1963. Five years later, the party's nationalist wing gained control in a bloodless coup, and Saddam reportedly sat atop the first tank to the presidential palace.
Under the new president, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, Vice Chairman Saddam built his power behind a small desk. He drove a Volkswagen Beetle. He won praise for pushing to use the nation's petroleum income to raise the standard of living.
"He was an impressive combination: not just a tough capable of commanding respect from the thugs . . . but also well-read, articulate and seemingly open-minded," Mark Bowden wrote in a 2002 story in The Atlantic Monthly.
Saddam became president in 1979.
At one of his first meetings of the Revolutionary Command Council, Iraq's legislative body, Saddam ordered the removal of more than 20 officials while TV cameras rolled. He called them spies and watched as a spotlight followed each being dragged away to face execution.
To the condemned who cried out their innocence, Saddam shouted, "Itla! Itla!"
The new president used television to preach to his people daily. He began to walk differently in public, jutting out his chest and stiffening his back.
Two months into his presidency, Saddam broke from a treaty and ordered troops into Iran. Iraq won quiet U.S. support, even though Saddam allegedly used mustard gas on his own people in one of the longest conventional wars of the 20th century.
Shortly after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, Saddam's forces in 1990 invaded Kuwait, a country Saddam regarded as Iraq's "19th province."
He rounded up Westerners living in Kuwait, and in one searing moment broadcast on TV, many Americans got their first good look at Saddam Hussein.
He patted the head of a trembling British boy—Stuart Lockwood, rigid with fear—and grinned. "Did Stuart have his milk today?"
An international coalition led by the United States drove his troops out in early 1991.
His actions against Kuwait prompted a wave of U.N. sanctions that handcuffed the Iraqi economy for years.
With every setback, Saddam tightened his grip. Mass graves multiplied. The U.S. State Department said torture involved medical experimentation, rape committed while a victim's spouse watched, and scorpions used to sting naked children in front of their parents.
The total number of people missing as a result of atrocities during his rule is estimated at 300,000 to 1.3 million.
In 1993, President Clinton ordered dozens of Tomahawk missiles fired at Baghdad after Saddam was accused of plotting to assassinate the first President Bush.
Saddam had embarked on a secret nuclear-weapons program in the early 1980s, after Israeli jets took out an Iraqi reactor. But all efforts ceased after the Persian Gulf War, said former Iraqi scientist Mahdi Obeidi, author of "The Bomb in My Garden."
Still, to the end of his reign Saddam kept alive the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission and had many nations convinced that bomb building was under way.
The illusion prompted a U.S.-led invasion based on faulty intelligence.
Inspectors found no evidence of a nuclear program.
Saddam suggested in an address to Arab leaders in April 2002 that humiliation would come to men who backed down from a holy fight to the death.
"I would like to remind my brothers of some of their fathers' and grandfathers' values when they confronted aggression," he said. "It would be disgraceful for any man not to go out to the battlefield even if he had nothing but an axe, a dagger or club."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.