The dinner party had gathered last Wednesday evening in a farmhouse in the fertile, fruit-growing countryside just outside Baqubah, 30 miles north of Baghdad. One of the attendees was Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. With him were at least three women and three men, including Sheik Abdul-Rahman, al-Zarqawi's so-called spiritual adviser and confidant. Also in the house was one of al-Zarqawi's most trusted couriers, an aide tasked with relaying messages from the commander to militants in the field. What al-Zarqawi could not have known was that U.S. and Jordanian intelligence officials had been tracking the movements of Abdul-Rahman and the courier--whom Jordanian intelligence refers to as Mr. X--for weeks. Fewer than half a dozen members of a U.S. reconnaissance and surveillance team from Delta Force hid in a grove of date and palm trees, watching the building. After years of hunting, they finally had the prey in their sights.
But almost as soon as they took up position, the commandos feared they were about to lose him. A special-operations source tells TIME that the surveillance team was worried that there wasn't enough time to assemble a ground assault force to raid the house and capture al-Zarqawi; the commandos at the site lacked sufficient manpower and weaponry to attack on their own. As dusk neared, the team fretted al-Zarqawi might slip away if they waited too long. A knowledgeable Pentagon official says the Delta team "saw one group come into the house and one group exit." Al-Zarqawi was not in the departing group, but the commandos were afraid he might be in the next one. The recon unit's leader radioed his superiors to request an air strike. Two Air Force F-16s on another mission miles away were given the assignment. At 6:12 p.m., the first of two precision-guided 500-lb. bombs fell on the farmhouse. For anyone still inside, there was nowhere left to hide.
The U.S. wasn't taking chances. During the three-year hunt for him, al-Zarqawi was a maddeningly elusive target--a master of disguise who could pass as a woman in a burqa one day, an Iraqi policeman the next. He traveled in groups of women and children to lower suspicion and frequently moved with ease through checkpoints in Iraq. Although military commanders believe they came close to capturing al-Zarqawi on at least half a dozen occasions in the past two years, few had reason to anticipate an imminent breakthrough. But military and intelligence officials in Washington, Baghdad and Amman tell TIME that the net around al-Zarqawi tightened significantly in the weeks leading up to the strike--boosted by the cooperation of al-Qaeda informants willing to betray their leader. The U.S. scored the war's biggest triumph since catching Saddam Hussein thanks to the determination of a small group of American hunters, to a Jordanian King's desire to avenge an attack on his country and, as always, to a good deal of luck. "This wasn't two hours', two nights' or two weeks' work," says a government source. "This was years of work to get this one guy."