- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2002

All signs suggest that Somalia and the Philippines, not Iraq, are the next targets for U.S. anti-terrorist military

action, but President Bush should order stepped-up planning to oust Saddam Hussein if he hasn't already done so.

The strongest evidence that Iraq won't be Phase Two of the anti-terror war after Afghanistan is that administration officials are not making a case that Saddam had anything to do with the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Instead, even officials known to favor action against Iraq, such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, are pointing in the direction of Somalia, an African haven for terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

In December, Mr. Wolfowitz told journalists: "People mention Somalia for obvious reasons. It's a country virtually without a government, a country that has a certain al Qaeda presence already."

Numerous news reports have indicated that the U.S. military is scouting targets in Somalia and the Philippines, where an Islamic terrorist movement is responsible for kidnappings and killings.

Somalia would present the U.S. military with an especially satisfying opportunity to revisit the site where 18 American soldiers were killed in 1993 in an operation depicted in the riveting new movie "Black Hawk Down."

The administration's strategic logic seems to be that, after routing al Qaeda from Afghanistan, the United States should sustain its momentum by reaching for so-called low-hanging fruit rather than leaping to Iraq right away.

If the United States can build up a string of anti-terror successes, it is more likely to hold a multinational coalition together for action against Iraq than if it moves against Saddam immediately.

Most of the nations cooperating in post-September 11 action against Afghanistan oppose a war against Iraq, especially Russia, the Arab world and much of Europe.

And although Iraq may be overrated as a military power, the United States presumably needs time to rebuild its inventory of high-tech munitions after the Afghanistan conflict to be sure of destroying high-value Iraqi targets.

Furthermore, unless Iraq can be linked directly to bin Laden or the September 11 attacks, military action there would have to be authorized separately by Congress.

The president presumably could obtain such authorization, but it would be more difficult than the almost unanimous support he received in September for war against al Qaeda.

In late December, Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, told reporters: "A strike against Iraq now would be a mistake. It would complicate Middle East diplomacy and would have just the opposite effect than the one we want in the Islamic world.

"I think we have to keep the pressure on Saddam Hussein in a collective way, with our Arab allies," he continued. "Unilateralism is a very dangerous concept. I don't think we should ever act unilaterally."

What's hard to determine is whether Mr. Bush intends to act to topple Saddam at some later time. It's well known that his advisers have been deeply split on the issue of an early campaign, with opponents led by Secretary of State Colin Powell apparently winning out over Pentagon officials led by Mr. Wolfowitz.

Some outside strategy experts suspect that a fierce battle is raging within the administration over whether to attack Iraq at all.

They point out that Mr. Powell has been advocating new economic sanctions against Iraq to force Saddam to accept United Nations weapons inspections, a policy derided as ineffective by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

On the other side, as noted in an excellent article on the debate by The Washington Post's Michael Dobbs on Dec. 27, Powell's Middle East envoy, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, once dismissed a war plan for Iraq as a recipe for a "Bay of Goats" disaster comparable to the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba.

That plan, built around inserting rebels from the London-based Iraqi National Congress into southern Iraq and defending them with 5,000 U.S. troops and precision bombing, was designed by Gen. Wayne A. Downing, now a White House official.

One outside strategist, Johns Hopkins University Professor Eliot Cohen, contends that toppling the Iraqi leader would be more difficult than the Downing plan envisions, but could be accomplished with precision bombing and two to four U.S. divisions based in Kuwait.

As Mr. Cohen wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the Iraqi regime "has committed mass murder, trained and supported terrorists, plotted the assassination of an American president [Mr. Bush's father, after he left office] and worked unremittingly to develop weapons of mass destruction."

He added: "Overthrow Saddam Hussein and the U.S. not only rids itself and the world of a menace and a monster. It may bring about a regime that will serve as a moderate influence on the region and increase the world's oil supply."

Mr. Bush may not want to make Saddam's ouster his next step, but he should order planning for the operation. And if the plan is feasible, he should make it his second step and begin selling the country on it.

Morton Kondracke is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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