WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Intelligence on the rebels battling Libya's Muammar Gaddafi has shown "flickers" of al Qaeda or Hezbollah presence, NATO's operations commander said, but U.S. officials said there were no indications militant groups are playing a significant role in Libya.
"We are examining very closely the content, composition, the personalities, who are the leaders of these opposition forces," Admiral James Stavridis, NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe and commander of U.S. European Command, said in testimony to a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday.
But several national security officials quickly and firmly denied that al Qaeda or Hezbollah were significantly involved.
"If anyone thinks there are vast numbers of al-Qaeda terrorists running the rebel movement in Libya, then Churchill never smoked a cigar in his life," one of the officials said.
"No one's saying there isn't a relative smattering of bad guys in Libya. After all, there always have been goons in the country," the official told Reuters.
"But let's get real here. This is, at its core, an anti-Gaddafi uprising rooted in major opposition to a repressive regime that has brutalized its own people for decades."
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice agreed that any al Qaeda involvement with the rebels was limited.
Asked whether she had seen any evidence to support Stavridis' assessment, Rice told Fox News: "I would like to think I'm reading much of the same stuff and no."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also made clear the wisps of information on al Qaeda and Hezbollah that Stavridis had alluded to were not based on hard intelligence.
"We do not have any specific information about specific individuals from any organization who are part of this, but of course, we're still getting to know those who are leading the Transitional National Council," she said in London after a conference on Libya.
Gaddafi's troops on Tuesday reversed the westward charge of rebel forces as world powers met in London more than a week after the United States and other nations launched a military campaign aimed at protecting Libyan civilians.
"Think in terms of very small numbers of Libyan rebels being affiliated with al-Qaeda," a U.S. official familiar with internal government reporting told Reuters. "While there are some limited connections, don't think that the rebels are somehow being led by al Qaeda. That's just not the case."
Even as the rebels struggle against Gaddafi's better-armed, better-organized troops, Stavridis said the Libyan leader was likely to go if the coalition brought a range of military power to bear against him.
"If we work all the elements of power, we have a more than reasonable chance of Gaddafi leaving, because the entire international community is arrayed against him," he said.
Two national security officials and a former White House counterterrorism expert said they could not confirm, and were puzzled by, Stavridis' assertion that intelligence showed possible involvement of Hezbollah with Libyan rebels.
Juan Zarate, a former counterterrorism advisor on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said he had no information to confirm Hezbollah involvement and it would be "incongruous" with what U.S. experts generally understand to be the makeup of Libyan rebel forces.
"I would find it unlikely at this stage that we have hard and fast evidence" that these groups are involved in a significant way in Libya, Zarate told Reuters.
Senators' questions at the hearing about the make-up of the Libyan opposition reflected skepticism in Congress about the Obama administration's preparedness for a campaign that came together quickly after weeks of speculation about whether the United States would intervene.
It also underscores worries about who might take over in Libya if Gaddafi does go.
"It's premature to say what is our exit strategy until we have a little more clarity moving forward," Stavridis said.
The Libya campaign has also intensified fears in Congress about the high cost of military activities overseas.
The war in Afghanistan, for example, costs the United States around $9 billion a month. Stavridis said the Libya mission had cost "hundreds of millions of dollars" so far.
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball. Writing by Missy Ryan; editing by Christopher Wilson