The U.S. bombing raid on March 19 launched the war, but it was unclear if it killed or wounded Saddam.
For days, he did not appear on state television. When he did, it was unknown when the tapes were made, or if it was a body double. U.S. officials said there were signs he had died or ceded control, perhaps fleeing to Syria.
That assessment soon seemed unduly optimistic, even after a second U.S. attempt to kill Saddam with an airstrike on April 7.
Months later, Saddam was believed to be alive and in Iraq. U.S. officials offered $25 million for information leading to his capture.
In a tape released in late July, which the CIA said was likely from Saddam, he boasted, "With the war not over, the occupation will not be able to stabilize the country with its army which occupies our land. The will of the people will not be subdued by the enemy."
However, when U.S. troops killed Saddam's sons Odai and Qusai in a July 22 raid, it appeared as though the Americans were closing in on the former Iraqi president. Subsequent raids netted some of Saddam's bodyguards, and documents possibly pointing to his location.
Catching the leader was an obvious priority for U.S. forces. Dozens of U.S. soldiers were killed after the end of major combat on May 1. U.S. officials say the doubt over Saddam's fate was fueling the attacks.
That means that Saddam still wielded power in Iraq, albeit in a diminished form, 35 years after his rise to power.
Born April 28, 1937, Saddam's violent rise mirrored the growth pains of his young country.
Iraq passed from Ottoman rule to British hands during World War I, then was led by a British-appointed monarch, but not for long: The monarchy was overthrown in 1958 and replaced by a republic headed by Brigadier Abd al Karim Qasim.
By this time, Saddam was already an operative. He had joined the Baath or Arab nationalist party in 1956, and was jailed for six months over 1958 to 1959 for what his official state biography dubs "political activities against the regime."
In 1959 Baath elements led by Saddam — who embraced a pan-Arab nationalism that Qasim rejected — tried to gun down Qasim, but failed. Saddam was wounded in the attempt and fled to Syria and then Egypt. Sentenced to death in absentia, he only returned when events put his Baath party in a position of power.
Qasim was ultimately overthrown in 1963 and replaced by a Baath party regime. But the Baaths were deposed in less than a year, and Saddam was jailed. Some versions of his life indicate he escaped in 1967.
The Baath party returned to power in 1968, after fighting during which, Saddam claims, he rode the first tank that breached the ruling party's compound. He emerged as a top enforcer, purging elements deemed disloyal to the Baathist cause.
On July 16, 1979, Saddam replaced Bakr as president — a post he has held since.
Alone at the top, Saddam continued to consolidate power by eliminating people perceived to be disloyal. According to an internal CIA memorandum of October 25, 1982, "Those executed had urged Saddam to 'step down' temporarily…"
Saddam's economic policies led to more equality and his combination of diplomacy and force helped to split a persistent Kurdish rebellion in the north.
But his other policies were soon overshadowed by Iraq's bloody war with Iran.
The two countries had long been rivals, but the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran brought forth a brand of Shiite fundamentalism that threatened Saddam's hold on power. An attempt by an Iranian-backed group to kill long-time Saddam ally Tariq Aziz was the immediate trigger of the conflict.
According to the official biography, Saddam "led the Iraqi people and army wisely and bravely against the aggression initiated and launched against Iraq" by Iran, which ended in "Iraq's great victory."
In fact, the war ravaged the Iraqi economy and caused upwards of 300,000 Iraqi casualties. During the eight-year war, in which Iraq battled a country that had taken American hostages, the United States gave logistical and intelligence support to Saddam.
Barely two years after the end of the bloody conflict with Iran, Iraq went to war again — this time invading Kuwait. Saddam apparently wanted to use Kuwait's oil to ease economic troubles in Iraq. But the attack culminated nearly 100 years of territorial dispute over whether Kuwait was a part of Iraq or not.
A little over six months after Iraq invaded, Iraqi forces were driven from the country by a coalition led by the United States.
The Gulf war destroyed much of Saddam's army, and triggered uprisings by Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. A lack of outside support for the rebellions allowed Saddam to crush both revolts. Subsequently, the U.S., Britain and France imposed no-fly zones at either end of the country.
Between the 1991 cease fire and the start of the 2003 war, Saddam's regime was the subject of sanctions and the target of three major sets of airstrikes — in 1993, when Saddam allegedly plotted to kill former President Bush; in 1998, when Saddam's lack of cooperation led weapons inspectors to depart; and in 2001, as a retaliation to Iraqi attempts to shoot down coalition planes in the no-fly zones.
Saddam's regime amassed a reputation for widespread torture and systematic killing. Human Rights Watch says since the 1970s, some 290,000 people have "disappeared." The State Department says security forces employed an array of brutal methods including dripping acid on the skin, rape and the threat of rape of family members, electric shocks, and burning with blowtorches.
According to his state biography, Saddam had three girls in addition to his slain sons. There may also be a third son.
By Jarrett Murphy