Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was executed early this Saturday morning in Baghdad, after a last minute appeal to a U.S. court failed to halt the hanging. From northern Iraq, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more on the life of the Iraqi strongman, who once ruled the country with an iron fist.

Saddam Hussein knew years of glory as Iraq's dictator, being both feared and loved, but he entered and left this world in much more humble circumstances.

Born into poverty in a mud hut in the northern town of Tikrit in 1937, his father dead before his birth, Saddam was raised by his maternal uncle Khairallah Talfah until he was three-years-old.

His mother remarried and young Saddam was returned to her, but he suffered at the hands of his step-father. At age ten, Saddam ran away to Baghdad to live again with his Uncle Khairallah. Years later, he would marry Khairallah's daughter Sadija and have three daughters and two sons with her.

Doctor Jerrold Post, a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, wrote a psychological profile of Saddam for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. He says Saddam's uncle was a significant influence in his life.

"His uncle filled him with dreams of glory and told him some day he would have a heroic role to play in the history of the Iraqi people, that he would follow in the pathway of Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin and liberate Jerusalem," said Jerrold Post.

As a teenager, Saddam joined the secular Baath party rising quickly through the party's ranks. At 22, he became part of an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qassim. When the plot was discovered, Saddam fled to Syria, then Egypt. He was tried in absentia in 1960 and sentenced to death.

He managed to sneak back into Iraq in 1963 and sought a position of power in the Baath party. In 1968, Saddam helped bring the Baath party back to power. Eleven years later, in 1979, at the age of 42, he was sworn in as president. He moved quickly to consolidate his power, executing hundreds of top ranking army officers and politicians he suspected of opposing him.

Saddam ruled with an iron hand, using murder, intimidation, detention, torture and other methods to control his political opponents. The country's Shi'ites and Kurds fared even worse, with Shi'ite marshlands in the south drained and Kurdish villages in the north destroyed and tens of thousands killed by conventional and chemical weapons. Even his own sons in-law were not spared. When their loyalty came into question, they were executed.

But at the same time, Saddam instituted a cult of personality. His image, in picture and statue, adorned Iraqi cities, as well as the country's currency.

In 1980, a year after becoming president, Saddam invaded his eastern neighbor, Iran, in a bid to capture the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway. The war dragged on for eight years until it ended in a stalemate; a million people were killed on both sides.

Two years later, in 1990, he invaded his southern neighbor, Kuwait. Saddam said he was ready for "the mother of all battles" to retain the oil rich kingdom. But a U.S.-led coalition of some 40 countries drove Iraqi troops from the tiny Gulf kingdom.

A decade later, the United States accused Saddam of secretly developing weapons of mass destruction. In March 2003, a U.S.-led force invaded Iraq. No chemical or biological weapons have ever been found.

After the invasion, Saddam's regime collapsed and he went into hiding. In December 2003, U.S. forces found the former strongman hiding in a hole in the ground near his hometown of Tikrit. George Washington University's Dr. Jerrold Post:

"And then, irony of ironies, where is he found finally when he is captured? Back in a mud hut in a little hole in the ground," he said. "Dust to dust and back to his origins."

He was detained and an Iraqi tribunal charged him with seven crimes, including the murders of 148 Shi'ite men in 1982, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the suppression of 1991 revolts by Kurds and Shi'ites, and the mass displacement of Kurds in the 1980s.

Only the first trial, for the executions of the 148 Shi'ites from Dujail, was completed and it was for that crime that Saddam received the death penalty.

At his death, he was on trial for genocide against the Kurds during the so-called al-Anfal campaign of the late 1980s in which some 180,000 Kurds were killed and thousands of their villages were destroyed.

Saddam was executed a few months shy of his 70th birthday.

He is survived by his wife Sadija and three daughters. His two sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in a shoot-out with coalition forces in July 2003.