Actually, there is no al Qaeda operating in Iraq. Instead, there are two Islamic terrorist organizations in Iraq, largely composed of foreigners, that have pledged their allegiance to al Qaeda, and several smaller ones that have not. The largest Islamic terrorist operation in Iraq is Jamaat Al-Tawhid Waal-Jihad (JTJ), which is run by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and is otherwise known as the al Zarqawi network, or al Qaeda in Iraq. There are only a few hundred active members of JTJ, at any one time. Casualties have been high, but there are plenty of foreign volunteers, coming mostly from Saudi Arabia, and moving in across the Syrian border.
Zarqawi is a 39 year old Jordanian, who went to fight the Russians in Afghanistan during the 1980s. He came home in the late 1980s, plotted to overthrow the monarchy, got arrested and spent seven years in jail. In 2000, he went back to Afghanistan, which was now being run by the Taliban. There, Zarqawi hooked up with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Zarqawi was running a terrorist training camp in Herat when American cruise missiles hit the place in October, 2001, injuring one of his legs. Zarqawi fled to Iran, and by May, 2002, was in Iraq, where his leg was amputated. Zarqawi went to northern Iraq, and worked with the newly formed Ansar al Islam. He also helped plan the assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan in late 2002. Zarqawi was still in northern Iraq when Kurdish troops, and American Special Forces, attacked the Ansar camps in early 2003, Zarqawi fled to Iran, and then showed up in southern Iraq again. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, Zarqawi gathered the foreign Islamic militants hiding out in Iraq, many of them al Qaeda trained, and formed JTJ. Aided by Sunni Arab nationalists, who refused to give up, JTJ began carrying out terrorist attacks. The first notable one was the August 19, 2003 car bomb attack against the UN headquarters in Baghdad. More attacks followed, along with videos showing Zarqawi, and other terrorists, beheading captives.
The other major terrorist operation in Iraq is Ansar al Islam. This outfit was formed in September, 2001, by merging several smaller Islamic radical organizations and taking control of several Kurdish villages in northern Iraq, on the Iranian border, and began imposing strict Islamic law on the inhabitants. Ansar wanted to turn Kurdish areas in northern Iraq and western Turkey into an Islamic republic. Ansar had some 700 armed members in that area, and Iran allowed them to receive supplies from the Iranian side of the border. Saddam Hussein also provided weapons and money. This was an odd arrangement, but Ansar al Islam served the needs both of Iran and Saddam, for Ansar was making life difficult for the Kurds up north, who had been independent, under the protection of American and British warplanes, for the last ten years. Both Iraq and Iran were opposed to independence minded Kurds, and had cooperated in the past against the Kurds. Ansar al Islam gets some of its recruits, and money, from among the million Kurds living in Europe.
Just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Kurds up north attacked the Ansar held villages and drove the surviving Ansar members into Iran. Over the next year, Ansar al Islam members sneaked back into northern Iraq, and began carrying out terrorist attacks. Ansar has been far less active than JTJ, because fewer Kurds are Islamic conservatives, and even fewer are willing to support terrorism. By early 2004, both JTJ and Ansar had made deals with Sunni Arabs, who wanted to regain power in Iraq. The Sunni Arabs would supply money, weapons and technical support. JTJ and Ansar would carry out terrorists attacks (mainly suicide bombings) against Americans and the new Iraqi government. Meanwhile, Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. This appears to be mainly for propaganda purposes, to steal some of bin Ladens popularity in the Moslem world. Zarqawis goal appears to be establishing an Islamic republic throughout the Arab world. Ansar wants to do the same thing among the Kurds.
By late 2004, the Islamic terrorists and their Sunni Arab supporters began to argue over strategy. The Sunni Arabs wanted fewer suicide bombings that killed Iraqi civilians. These deaths were making the Sunni Arab insurgency against American occupation unpopular with Iraqis. JTJ and Ansar are on a mission from God, so they rejected these Sunni Arab complaints. By early 2005, Islamic terrorists and Sunni Arab gunmen were seen shooting at each other, although Sunni Arab support for JTJ was still being provided. There were many Sunni Arab factions, and not all of them were ready to go to war with JTJ over the violence.
By the Summer of 2005, more and more Sunni Arab factions were turning against the Islamic terrorists. Ansar al Islam was under continued pressure up north, But the terror attacks continued, and would go on as long as some of the Sunni Arabs provided shelter and support for the JTJ terrorist bombing teams, and the foreign volunteers continued to get into the country.