Hussein's father died before he was born and he was raised by his mother and her second husband (who was also his uncle), Khairallah Talfah.
In 1956 he took part in an unsuccessful coup to overthrow King Faisal II and Prime Minister Nuri as-Said.
He joined the Baath party in 1957 and a year later King Faisal was killed in a coup led by Abdul Karim Kassem.
In October 1959 he took part in a conspiracy to kill prime minister Kassem. But he had to flee the country as the conspiracy failed.
Five years later Kassem was overthrown and executed. The Baath party assumed control and Hussein returned home.
During this period he married his cousin Sajida. They later had two sons (Uday and Qusay) and three daughters.
But within months, the Baath party had been overthrown and he was jailed. He remained there until, in a bloodless coup, Major General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr of the Baath party became president in July 1968.
Once out of jail, Hussein gained a position on the ruling Revolutionary Command Council.
For years he was the power behind Bakr, who was ailing. In July 1979, he pushed aside the president to become his country's ruler.
During the early years of his presidency, he was a poster boy of United States. The US sold his regime arms to fight the Iranians, against whom Hussein declared war in 1980. But the war dragged on for eight years, and in the process claimed more than a million lives.
In 1990 he committed arguably his biggest blunder by invading Kuwait. The US, which till then was willing to overlook all his faults, could not afford to have him control Kuwait, and so launched a war to oust the Iraqi army from the tiny state in early 1990.
Then began a decade of punishing UN sanctions, which crippled the already weakened Iraqi economy and army.
In 2003, the US-led coalition launched a war against Iraq because it feared that the regime was developing weapons of mass destruction.