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Saddam Hussein has the dubious distinction of being the best-known Middle Eastern dictator. He ruled Iraq from 1979 until his overthrow and capture by a US-led coalition, in 2003.

Born to a peasant family near Tikrit, the teenage Saddam immersed himself in the anti-British, Arab nationalist ideology of the day. Failing to complete high school, Saddam joined the Ba'ath Party in Baghdad, who were plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Abdel-Karim Qassem. The plan failed and Saddam fled across the desert on a donkey to Egypt.

Four years later in 1963, the Ba'ath Party did overthrow Qassem, Saddam returned home and started to push for power, but within months there was a counter-coup.

Jailed until the Ba'athists siezed power again in 1968, Saddam worked as a henchman for his distant relative, Hassan Al-Bakr, the new Iraqi president and chairman of the Revolutionary Council. Saddam rose to Vice-President and began "purifying" the government: all dissidents were imprisoned, tortured or executed.

Saddam forced the ailing President to retire a decade later, and had himself sworn in as leader of the republic. To ensure his control, Saddam ordered the execution of dozens of top ranking soldiers.

In an attempt to wrest the Shatt-al-Arab waterway from Iran, Saddam, armed by the West, declared war on Tehran in 1980. The battle ended in a stalemate, eight years later, with an estimated one million declared dead.

Thwarted in expanding Iraq’s influence to the east, Saddam claimed Kuwait as the 19th province of Iraq, citing historical justification,

His soldiers crossed the Kuwaiti border in August 1990, only to be bombed into retreat by a huge US-led coalition four months later. The campaign was known as Desert Storm.

With the tacit encouragement of Washington, the Iraqi Shia and the Kurds rebelled against Saddam. The dissenters were massacred by Saddam’s military, and the US reneged on its pledge to support the uprising.

Since the international coalition did not attempt to topple Saddam, his regime continued to brutally suppress Kurds and Shiites. Although Saddam survived attempted coups in 1992 and 1993, and a major defection in 1995, UN sanctions hurt Iraq and prevented its resurgence as a power in the Gulf.

However, the United Nations failed to compel Saddam to comply with a string of special resolutions obliging Iraq to destroy its nuclear, chemical and biological stockpiles and research facilities under supervision.

During the 1990s, Saddam repeatedly challenged the Security Council over the implementation of these resolutions, never giving an inch strategically but always leaving enough wriggle room for last-minute tactical concessions when confronted with the threat of force.

Things came to a head after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Though the US administration refrained from linking Saddam directly to the atrocity, it made the Iraqi leader, who applauded the attacks as a heroic act, a central target of President Bush's “war on terrorism.”

How did Saddam Hussein lose power?

In November 2002, the UN passed Resolution 1441 which charged Iraq of violating Security Council resolutions regarding non-conventional disarmament and warned that Iraq “will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violation of its obligations.”

As Saddam continued to defy the warnings, the United States - together with a number of key allies - launched an attack which quickly toppled Iraq's Ba'athist regime. Saddam himself managed to escape and to remain in hiding for some time, but was eventually captured and put in prison pending a war crimes trial by the first democratically elected government in Iraq's history.

On November 5, 2006, Saddam Hussein was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by hanging. Saddam's half brother, Barzan Ibrahim, and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court in 1982, were convicted of similar charges as well.

The verdict and sentencing were both appealed but subsequently affirmed by Iraq's Supreme Court of Appeals. On 30 December 2006, Saddam was hanged.


It was on 5 November 2006 that Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death. On New Year’s Eve of that year, he was led to the gallows by a jeering, taunting crowd, his final moments caught on mobile phone footage that went viral online. How had a man who’d once dominated his nation like some all-powerful medieval king, who’d build dozens of personal palaces and signed death warrants with a Cartier pen, been brought to such a pitiful end?

Long regarded by the US in particular as a kind of international bogeyman who threatened the safety of the world, Saddam had taken control of Iraq back in 1979, following a rocky rise to the top. A politically active young man, he’d embraced the revolutionary, Arab nationalist ideology of Baathism and been directly involved in an attempt to assassinate the Iraqi prime minister in 1959. He would later serve time in prison for plotting another political killing, but a successful Baathist coup in 1968 led to Saddam becoming Vice President of Iraq. Over the years that followed, he consolidated his power base, eventually establishing himself as dictator.

The decades after that were scarred by conflict. There was the Iran-Iraq War that sprawled for eight bitter years in the 1980s. Then came the first Gulf War of the early 90s, triggered by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Saddam maintained power through it all, but the end would eventually come in the wake of 9/11, when US President George W. Bush signalled a new, uncompromising stance by naming Iraq as part of an “axis of evil”.

In the face of widespread controversy, with many questioning whether Saddam even possessed any weapons of mass destruction, the US-led invasion of Iraq went ahead in 2003. Thanks to an unstoppable 'shock and awe' onslaught, Iraqi forces were rapidly crushed. Within weeks, the ruthless reign of Saddam Hussein, which had lasted almost a quarter of a century, had been brought to an end. The problem was, Saddam himself was nowhere to be found.

As Major General Ray Odierno later put it, 'The fact that he’d gotten away made him even more mystical. The longer that he was free, the more mystical it got.'

Designated 'High Value Target #1', the toppled dictator was the focus of a vast manhunt across a dangerous, war-torn landscape. Tens of thousands of US troops were involved, along with a special unit known as Task Force 121, which included members of the Delta Force and CIA operatives.

Hundreds of interrogations were carried out. Lieutenant Colonel Steve Russell would later recall how one Iraqi literally drew up a 'family tree' of those closest to Saddam – 'half a dozen families, cronies who had been with him since the 1950s… it was like sketching out Tony Soprano’s family.'

A prime focus was Mohammed Ibrahim al-Muslit, a close associate of the dictator who was eventually apprehended in a raid conducted in Baghdad. 'I knew exactly what he was supposed to look like,' a US army interrogator later said. 'Ibrahim was supposed to have a chin like John Travolta’s. When I took the hood off him, it was like, bam.'

Mohammed Ibrahim al-Muslit was the big break they desperately needed. He agreed to cooperate, and revealed that the former dictator was hiding in a location close to his hometown of Tikrit. The mission to capture Saddam Hussein was dubbed Operation Red Dawn, after an 80s Patrick Swayze action movie. The two sites singled out as where Saddam was most likely to be hiding were named Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2, after the heroic resistance fighters in the Swayze movie.

Much to the frustration of the troops deployed to search the targets, both of these Wolverine sites yielded nothing. But then they closed in on a third, less important-seeming target: a farmhouse. A search of the site, followed by a fierce interrogation of the farm’s owner, led to the discovery of a concealed hole in the ground. And from this hole, came a voice that was instantly recognisable to one of the Iraqi translators. It was Saddam Hussein.

The news was communicated back over the radio with one word: 'Jackpot'. When he was taken to a secure compound, Saddam proved strangely chatty, even charming. While being examined by a US army surgeon, the heavily bearded and dishevelled former dictator said 'I wanted to be a doctor when I was a kid, but politics had too great a hold of my heart'. That began a conversation that lasted almost six hours.

Saddam would prove similarly talkative when he was put on trial for crimes against humanity. He shouted and jabbed his finger angrily, trying to assert his authority. The proceedings themselves were both farcical and tragic – the chief judge resigned, one of Saddam’s co-defendants had to be removed after calling the court the 'daughter of a whore', and Saddam’s own lawyer was murdered.

In the end, the one-time strongman of Iraq was sentenced to death. Many prominent figures disapproved – Amnesty International criticised the 'flawed process' of the trial, and even Tony Blair told journalists 'We’re against the death penalty, whether it is Saddam or anybody else.' To many others, death by hanging was all Saddam Hussein deserved for the brutality he had brought to his own people for so many years.