Two U.S. F-16 jets on patrol over Iraq were scrambled Wednesday evening as part of an intense six-week manhunt for Iraq's most-wanted terrorist. U.S. military officials tell NBC News the jets were tracking Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's top deputy, Abu Abdul Rahman, as he headed to a meeting with Zarqawi in an isolated two-story farmhouse 40 miles north of Baghdad.
When U.S. special forces confirmed Zarqawi was inside, they fired two 500-pound bombs. U.S. military officials, who swept the area after the attack, say Zarqawi, Rahman and four others were killed instantly.
"We have been able to identify al-Zarqawi through fingerprint verification, facial recognition and known scars," said Gen. William Casey, the commander of the multinational force in Iraq.
In a carefully choreographed presentation, the new Iraqi prime minister made the announcement of Zarqawi's death. The U.S. military then displayed photographs of Zarqawi, taken after blood and dirt were wiped off his face to make him recognizable.
Zarqawi, known for disguising his appearance, had eluded capture several times, despite a $25 million bounty on his head.
U.S. officials accuse the Jordanian-born militant of carrying out a three-year jihad of car bombings, kidnapping and executions that left thousands here dead.
"Over the last several years, no single person on this planet has had the blood of more innocent men, women and children on his hands than Zarqawi," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Thursday at the Pentagon.
Zarqawi was savagely brutal. He personally beheaded American hostage Nick Berg. At the time, he taunted President Bush.
"You love life as much as my fighters love death," he said on a video released after the murder.
So how did the U.S. pick up Zarqawi's trail?
U.S. military officials say an informant within al-Qaida in Iraq, his own organization, turned on him and told U.S. special forces how to track the deputy Rahman. The two met frequently, a pattern U.S. forces were able to exploit.
U.S. military officials tell NBC News they waited 18 hours to make the announcement because troops uncovered a "treasure trove" of intelligence in Zarqawi's safe house, including computer equipment. They used the new information while it was still fresh to launch 17 operations Thursday night against al-Qaida militants in and around Baghdad.