By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The influential chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' intelligence committee said on Wednesday he opposes supplying arms to the Libyan rebels fighting Muammar Gaddafi.
"As we publicly debate next steps on Libya, I do not support arming the Libyan rebels at this time," Rep. Mike Rogers said in a statement. "We need to understand more about the opposition before I would support passing out guns and advanced weapons to them."
The United States is taking part in a multinational coalition conducting air strikes aimed at preventing civilian deaths in attacks by leader Gaddafi's forces. Obama says the objective of the U.S. and allied campaign is to apply steady pressure on the Libyan leader so that he will ultimately step down from power.
Some lawmakers have called on Washington to arm the Libyan rebels and President Barack Obama did not reject the option. "I'm not ruling it in, I'm not ruling it out," he told NBC in an interview on Tuesday.
But Rogers, a Republican whose position means he is briefed on intelligence matters, did rule it out -- for now. He said not enough was known about the rebels, and the wrong decision could "come back to haunt us."
"It's safe to say what the rebels stand against, but we are a long way from an understanding of what they stand for," Rogers said.
On Tuesday, NATO operations commander Admiral James Stavridis said intelligence has shown "flickers" of al Qaeda or Hezbollah presence among the Libyan rebels, although other U.S. officials denied these groups were significantly involved.
Rogers alluded to past U.S. experience with arming rebels when things did not always turn out as expected. The United States helped to arm fighters against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, only to have some of the fighters later join the Taliban that is now battling U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"We don't have to look very far back in history to find examples of the unintended consequences of passing out advanced weapons to a group of fighters we didn't know as well as we should have," Rogers said. "Even if you think you know them, you can't guarantee that those weapons won't later fall into the hands of bad actors."
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers favor arming the rebels, including Republican Senator John McCain, who had also urged the Obama administration to take military action against Libya.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday that arming the rebels was allowed under the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the military intervention in Libya. (Editing by Doina Chiacu)