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Hussein was symbol of autocracy, cruelty in Iraq

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of Iraq who spent his last years in captivity after his ruthless Baathist regime was toppled from power by the U.S.-led coalition in 2003, has been executed -- hanged for crimes during a brutal crackdown during his reign.

Hussein was hanged before dawn Saturday in Iraq at about 6 a.m. (10 p.m. Friday ET), according to one of Hussein's lawyers.

Hussein -- whose name conjures lengthy war, government autocracy and widespread cruelty -- was found guilty in the killings of 148 people in Dujail, a mostly Shiite town north of Baghdad, after a 1982 attempt to assassinate him.

At the time of his death, he was being tried for genocide in the killings of up to 100,000 Kurds during the 1988 Anfal campaign against Kurdish rebels -- a campaign that included the use of poison gas against Kurdish towns in northern Iraq.

Hussein was the object of an intense manhunt after the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003 with the aim of overthrowing his regime. The Bush administration and Britain claimed Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction and constituted a threat to their national security. After the invasion, Hussein disappeared from public view, surfacing only in tapes released to Arab television networks.

On December 13, 2003, coalition forces found Hussein tucked away in an underground bunker at a farmhouse near his hometown of Tikrit. His capture was one of the biggest coalition achievements in what many people say has been an ill-fated, mistake-filled expedition. (Watch U.S. troops explain how Hussein was captured Video)

Humble beginnings

Hussein was born into a poor family on April 28, 1937, in a rural town outside Tikrit. He grew up without his biological father. His mother's brother [and Hussein's future father-in-law], Khairallah Talfah, an Iraqi army officer and Arab nationalist, was a major influence in Hussein's early years. (Watch Hussein work his way up from peasant to president Video)

Having moved to Baghdad as a teenager, Hussein joined the Arab Baath Socialist Party while a secondary school student. In 1958 he spent six months in prison for his political activities.

The next year Hussein and several others attempted to assassinate Gen. Abdul Karim Kassem, who came to power in 1958 in a military coup. Hussein was shot in the leg during the botched attempt, but he escaped and fled Iraq. He was sentenced to death in absentia February 25, 1960, for his role in the plot.

After studying in Egypt, Hussein returned to Iraq in February 1963 following the Ramadan Revolution, in which Baath Party members overthrew Kassem. The following months of political turmoil culminated in another coup, and Hussein was arrested again on October 14, 1964.

He was elected deputy secretary-general of the Baath Party while in prison.

According to the prewar Iraqi News Agency's resume of Hussein, he escaped from jail in 1967. In July 1968 he played a leading role in a coup that led to the ascension of Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, a fellow Baath member and Hussein's cousin, as Iraq's new ruler.

'Considerable charm and ability to get things done'

As vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council -- in effect, al-Bakr's second-in-command -- Hussein promoted many progressive ideas in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He built a reputation as a progressive, effective politician.

"Saddam accumulated power over a period of 10 to 12 years," said Mark Bowden, a best-selling author who profiled Hussein's daily life in a May 2002 Atlantic Monthly article. "When you have evidenced considerable charm [and] an ability to get things done, even very idealistic and ambitious people begin to side with you."

The other side of Hussein was demonstrated in 1979, when al-Bakr stepped down -- officially because of illness -- and Hussein took over as president.

With a camera recording the event, Hussein told a room full of top officials that he had uncovered a conspiracy to overthrow the government. One by one he named the alleged traitors. Sixty-eight men were taken away, and 21 were executed.

"He essentially betrayed many of those people who had relied on him," Bowden said.

In 1980 Hussein entered a war with Iran that would last eight years and, according to some estimates, cost more than a million lives, before ending in a stalemate.

Crimes against humanity

The killings in Dujail occurred in 1982 in the context and the shadow of the Iran-Iraq war. (Watch a joyous visit turn tragic Video)

The United Nations alleged Hussein ordered Iraqi forces to use mustard gas and nerve agents on Iranian soldiers and that in 1988 he unleashed chemical weapons on rebellious Kurds in northern Iraq.

Two years later he ordered troops and tanks to invade Kuwait, Iraq's oil-rich neighbor to the south. A U.N.-backed, U.S.-led coalition routed Iraq's forces and forced them out of Kuwait in early 1991.

Though Iraq emerged worse off from both the stalemate with Iran and the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Hussein declared victory after each.

Hussein's resume, posted on the Web site of Iraq's U.N. mission before the war, claimed he led Iraq in confronting "the aggression launched by 33 countries led by the U.S. [as] Iraq stood strong against the invasion, maintaining its sovereignty and political system."

Sanctions imposed by the United Nations after the 1991 Gulf War brought more difficulties. Hussein, the United Nations and Western powers went back and forth on sanctions, airstrikes and Iraq's alleged chemical, biological and nuclear programs.

Charles Duelfer, a top official with the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq from 1993 until it was disbanded in 2000, said Iraq undermined U.N. efforts to enforce the cease-fire agreement, misleading inspectors and refusing access to sensitive buildings.

"It got to the point they knew that we knew that they knew that we knew," Duelfer said. "It was a great game, in a sense."

Hussein and his associates tried to lobby Middle Eastern nations to end the U.N.-imposed sanctions and support his policies, in particular his fervent opposition to the United States and Israel.

After years of hide and seek, the inspection system broke down in 1998. The United Nations pulled its inspectors from the country, and the United States and Great Britain launched Operation Desert Fox -- four days of airstrikes against military and political targets inside Iraq.

A 'grave and gathering danger'

In 2002 the Bush administration accused Hussein of personally profiting from illicit oil sales as sanctions ravaged Iraq, and of developing weapons of mass destruction and brutally controlling his countrymen.

President Bush stepped up the pressure in a September 12, 2002, speech to the U.N. General Assembly, saying Hussein posed a "grave and gathering danger" and calling on the United Nations to move quickly to enforce its resolutions demanding Iraq's disarmament.

"Iraq has answered a decade of U.N. demands with a decade of defiance," Bush said.

"All the world now faces a test, and the United Nations a difficult and defining moment," he said. "Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant? "

On October 1 Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said, "The things that Washington says are all untrue."

Other Iraqi officials claimed the October 2002 referendum -- in which Iraqis unanimously backed [officially 11,445,638 to 0] sole candidate Hussein -- proved the Iraqi leader's popularity.

"Why should anybody say 'no' to Saddam Hussein?" said Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, after the vote. "He is the symbol of our freedom and of our future."

Despite the military setbacks, a rash of assassination attempts and the years of devastating sanctions, Hussein appeared to have a firm grip on power.

Weapons of mass destruction?

But under mounting pressure after Bush's speech, Iraq re-admitted U.N. weapons inspectors, who returned to Iraq in November 2002 with the prospect of war or peace hanging in the balance.

Inspectors found illegal Samoud missiles and destroyed them in February 2003.

The inspectors departed again in March 2003 after the United States advised the United Nations to remove its weapons inspectors from Iraq ahead of an expected U.S.-led attack.

The war began on March 19 with an unsuccessful "decapitation attack" aimed at killing Hussein and other top members of the country's leadership. Twenty-one days later, U.S. forces rolled into Baghdad as jubilant Iraqis defaced monuments and statues erected in honor of Hussein.

Eventually, the Bush administration conceded that there were no weapons of mass destruction, the primary reason it had cited for the invasion. It has since said that it launched the invasion to get rid of Hussein and spread democracy.

Even though some in the administration advanced the idea that there may have been a working relationship between the Hussein regime and al Qaeda, that theory was firmly refuted by the 9/11 commission report.

After Hussein was captured, the coalition and the post-Hussein Iraqis in power began setting the stage for war crimes tribunals.

After the Dujail trial began, Hussein took on a combative posture in the court, arguing with judges, attorneys and those testifying and insisting that he was still the country's leader.

But he and two co-defendants were convicted of crimes against humanity, ensuring that Hussein's legacy will be his ruthless reign.

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