WASHINGTON -- Iraqi military figures contemplating a forceful move alongside rebels seeking to topple President Saddam Hussein pulled back after the United States withheld its support, a Senate staff report charged yesterday.
The U.S. stance served to deter defections to the rebel camp, "thus helping to doom the anti-Saddam cause," the report said.
The report, prepared by Peter W. Galbraith, a top aide to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., seems certain to fuel the debate in Congress over both the administration's failure to support the rebellion and its slowness in mounting a large-scale response to the flood of refugees that followed.
Mr. Galbraith traveled more than 150 miles through Kurdish areas of northern Iraq over Congress' Easter recess, visiting Zakho, Dohuk and Amadiya.
He also met with a broad spectrum of Iraqi opposition leaders in Syria, Europe and Washington.
"As the anti-Saddam rebellion gained force in early March, several strategically located Iraqi military figures contacted the Joint Action Committee," the umbrella organization of the Iraqi opposition, the report said, citing "both Arab and Kurdish opposition leaders."
The military figures "contemplated bringing possibly decisive force to the side of the rebels," but they looked for a sign that the rebellion's sponsors had support from the United States, "the one country pre-eminent militarily and politically in Iraq" after the Persian Gulf war.
"No such signal was given. On the contrary, the public snub of Kurdish and other Iraqi opposition leaders was read as a clear indication the United States did not want the popular rebellion to succeed," the report said.
"Given the negative signals from Washington, the potential military defectors sat on the fence. And while they did so, the anti-Saddam rebellion was crushed."
A Bush administration official closely involved in policy toward Iraq dismissed Mr. Galbraith's argument as "very naive."
Had the United States given a signal of support, "those people would be history," the official said, arguing that a U.S. imprimatur would have been a liability, making opposition forces immediately suspect.
The official didn't quarrel with the report's contention that Saudi Arabia backed rebel forces, but he denied that the Saudis were pressing the United States to aid the rebels.
"None of our friends was pushing us to get involved," the official said.
The administration, which refused to introduce U.S. forces into the potential "quagmire" of Iraq's civil war, has argued that the insurrection helped prolong Mr. Hussein's hold on power, since it distracted any officials in the military or ruling Baath Party who would be the most likely sources of a coup attempt.
The Galbraith report may offer the first indication that military officials might have been prepared to join the rebellion.