Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense and probably the Bush administration’s most ardent advocate of military intervention against Iraq, recently insisted that the administration’s immediate focus should remain on the war on terrorism in Afghanistan. But press reports say that U.S. military planners are now examining targets in Somalia--a nation torn by ethnic strife and with a weak government--for that war. From the facts available, an attack against Somalia may be merited, but not one against Iraq.

Reports on the ground from Somalia seem to confirm the U.S. planning. A U.S. government team was seen talking to Somalia opposition leaders and Ethiopian military personnel that support them. The topic of discussion likely was terrorist targets that could be hit by a U.S. military strike. Wolfowitz has admitted that the Al Qaeda terrorist network has a presence in Somalia. And the Ethiopian government accuses the Somali government of harboring that organization.

President Bush’s original goal was to attempt to eradicate “terrorists of global reach” and the governments that support them. Al Qaeda is the only terrorist group that fits in that category. And Al Qaeda is the only group that has conducted a catastrophic attack on the American homeland. The severity of that attack and the potential for future strikes make it imperative that the United States focuses on eliminating or severely crippling Al Qaeda. Even if Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders are stopped, other elements of the organization remain in other parts of the world. All attempts to use the Sept.11 tragedy and anthrax incidents to settle old scores--namely attacking Saddam Hussein--need to be put aside to ensure the safety of our own shores.

And Iraq is a distraction. If evidence were developed that Hussein was directly linked to the attacks on Sept. 11 or the anthrax incidents, he would no longer be a distraction. Then the United States should attack Iraq and not end military action until that dictator no longer rules Iraq. But, so far, conservatives and others making the case for targeting Iraq have developed a flimsy case that Saddam was involved in such attacks. Iraq does support terrorist groups, but none that currently focus their attacks on U.S. targets. Of the four terrorist groups Iraq supports, two attacked U.S. targets in the distant past but no longer concentrate their strikes on the United States and two have never concentrated their attacks on U.S. targets and are in seeming decline. In addition to being a distraction from what should be the main goal--the dismantling of Al Qaeda--attacking Iraq and its dependent groups might stir the hornets’ nest by motivating terrorists that would normally not attack the United States to do so.

Attacking Iraq also has other drawbacks. A U.S. attack on an Islamic nation without any clear connection to Al Qaeda, the Sept. 11 attacks or the anthrax incidents--combined with the ongoing violence between the Israelis and Palestinians--could be a recruiting poster for terrorists in the radical Islamic community worldwide. In addition, the United States had no choice about destabilizing Afghanistan to root out the treacherous terrorist group that attacked America and its supporters. But it does have the choice of destabilizing Iraq if no evidence is found linking it to Sept. 11.

Moderate Arab states could also be destabilized by a rise in radical Islamic sentiments in the wake of U.S. military operations against an Islamic country that has unclear links to Al Qaeda or those attacks. For that reason, unlike Desert Storm in 1991, the United States would find few regional allies that would allow her to use her military bases to attack Iraq. Similarly, Turkey, a key U.S. regional ally and neighbor of Iraq, would not be thrilled with a post-war Iraqi government that had significant participation by the Kurds or an independent Kurdish state.

The European allies also oppose a U.S. assault on Iraq. Finally, fighting the Iraqi army, including the elite Republican Guards, might be much more challenging than fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Although Somalia may not have many fixed terrorist targets for the U.S. military to destroy, an Al Qaeda presence exists and U.S. attacks would probably deter Al Qaeda members from seeking shelter in that chaotic and unstable, and therefore, attractive, haven for terrorists. Thus, if the Bush administration can make a strong case that U.S. military action in Somalia would be important in the worldwide fight against Al Qaeda, they should conduct it swiftly and unapologetically and not be distracted by a sideshow in Iraq.