US policies towards Iraq and Palestine were denounced at a meeting of Tunisian dissidents on Monday, the day before Powell arrives to begin a rare North African tour.

"We do not welcome US Secretary of State Colin Powell here because the US is occupying Iraq and continuing its support for Israel to kill Palestinians," said Mukhtar Traifi, chairman of the Tunisian Human Rights League, the country's only independent rights group.

In Washington, a US official said on Sunday that Powell, who will also visit Morocco and Algeria on his two-day tour, would try to reinforce a speech by US President George Bush last month asking Arab states to embrace democracy and freedom.

US 'hidden agenda'

But Tunisians speaking at the meeting said Bush's pledges to foster democracy in the Arab world disguised a hidden agenda - to destroy the genuine values that drive Arabs and Muslims to resist US domination of the region.

"As Arabs we need democracy, but we do not need the American version of democracy, which comes on top of army tanks as is happening in Iraq, where US occupying troops kill Iraqis without discrimination, even women and children," said Traifi.

The Tunisian government, an ally of the US, does not allow much dissident activity. Rights groups at home and abroad accuse it of human rights abuses, but supporters praise it for stability and strong economic growth.

Message to Washington

Najib Shabbi, who heads the legal opposition Progressive Democratic Party and held the meeting at its offices, said the purpose of the gathering was to send a message to the US to pull out of Iraq.

"We back the Iraqi resistance against US forces"

Najib Shabbi,
Progressive Democratic Party

"We back the Iraqi resistance against US forces because it is a legitimate action to force the American troops to withdraw from Iraq. The resistance is not terrorism as the US government alleges," Shabbi said.

Abd al-Rauf Ayadi, a leader of the unauthorised opposition Congress for Democracy, said: "The US is waging a war of mass destruction against the Arab nation under the pretence of destroying weapons of mass destruction. The US wants to Americanise the Arabs."

Hamma Hammami, head of the unauthorised Tunisian Communist Workers' Party said: "This visit is a provocation to the patriotic feelings of the Tunisian people who oppose the Iraqi occupation and back the Iraqi people's resistance and the Palestinian uprising."