WASHINGTON (AP) _ On the eve of hearings into the government's siege of a religious sect compound in Waco, Texas, that left 91 people dead, the National Rifle Association's role in the proceedings stirred new controversy Tuesday.

Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, expressed ``outrage'' that a woman with NRA ties interviewed a prospective witness under the guise of being part of the Waco hearing team.

``No such contact was ever authorized by myself or this committee,'' Hyde wrote two ranking Democrats on his panel.

Whether intentional or not, Hyde's remarks distanced him from the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, whose members are also taking part in the eight days of hearings opening Wednesday.

Hyde told the Democrats he had no objection if they interviewed the NRA representatives, but did not immediately respond to their request to subpoena the representatives to testify.

Rep. Bill Zeliff, the Government Reform subcommittee chairman who will co-preside over the hearings, insisted he will be able to keep them focused on what happened when and after government agents tried to serve a search warrant on the Branch Davidian compound.

``Nobody can say I'm engaging in a witch hunt,'' the New Hampshire Republican said. ``With all the honesty and integrity in my body, I'm trying to get to the bottom of this.''

But as Democrats gleefully pointed out, Hyde's comments kept the NRA issue alive and threatened to overshadow the political points Republicans had hoped to score through the hearings.

Based on witness lists and interviews with staff members and lawmakers, the Republican-dominated subcommittees _ Judiciary's crime panel and Government Reform's criminal justice panel _ appear ready to focus on what government officials did outside the compound.

Committee aides said the hearings will cover everything from the planning of the Feb. 28, 1993, search warrant raid to the April 19 fire that destroyed the compound. Four federal agents and six residents of the compound died in a shootout when agents arrived to serve the warrant; cult leader David Koresh and 80 of his followers died from the fire or gunshot wounds as the standoff ended.

The witness list includes top officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and agents who participated in the raid, several survivors of the fire and experts on firearms and religion. Attorney General Janet Reno, who approved the controversial decision to use tear gas on the final day, will be the last witness when the hearings conclude July 31.

Zeliff and co-chair Bill McCollum, R-Fla., hope to bridge the gap between the government's description of events and the recollections of those who were inside. There are crucial differences every step of the way.

According to the Davidians and those who have taken up their cause, Koresh and his followers were religious peace lovers who collected legal guns. On the first day, this camp says, overzealous federal agents fired on them first, from the ground and from helicopters, and forced the Davidians to take up arms in self defense.

Under this version of events, federal agents fabricated allegations of child abuse and methamphetamine manufacturing to get a warrant and enlist military help. They also sabotaged negotiations, so Koresh would not surrender, and started the fatal fires, either intentionally or by knocking over lanterns when tanks were used to punch holes in the walls of the compound. Then the agents let the fires burn to destroy the evidence of their wrongdoing.

``I believe that the bullets that were coming from the helicopters and from the agents at the door were simultaneous,'' one of the surviving Davidians, Annetta Richards, said at a news conference organized by the Citizens' Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, the Committee for Waco Justice and Gun Owners of America.

``I would like the ladies and gentlemen of the Congress to believe our story when we say we were there studying God's word,'' she said. ``We were not there for fighting.''

In the government's version of the story, the Davidians operated a drug laboratory and abused and molested children. They amassed grenades and converted regular guns into illegal automatic weapons, then used those weapons to ambush agents who arrived with a search warrant.

The government contends agents did not fire from helicopters, did not start the fire and only knocked holes in the walls to give people inside a chance to escape.

ATF agent Marvin Richardson, who took part in the raid, said those who believe the Davidians were innocent civilians overlook reality.

``Everybody calls them citizens, but nobody calls them what they were,'' the agent said. ``On that day, they were lawbreakers, and at the end of that day, they were murderers.''