updated 2/11/2006 12:38:58 PM ET 2006-02-11T17:38:58

Citing their nations’ shared experience as victims of terrorism, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and leaders of this Muslim nation pledged on Saturday to build closer military ties to help combat Islamic extremism.

“They have been attacked by terrorists in this country, they have felt the sting of that type of violence,” Rumsfeld told reporters after meeting with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali at the presidential palace.

Rumsfeld was referring to an April 2002 terrorist attack on the historic El-Ghriba synagogue on the island of Jerba that killed 21 people. The al-Qaida terrorist network claimed responsibility.

Tunis was the first stop on a three-day North Africa tour that also was taking Rumsfeld to Algeria and Morocco. The Bush administration is seeking to expand security cooperation in this region, parts of which are viewed by some as a potential haven for al-Qaida or other terrorist groups.

A written statement issued by a presidential spokesman said Ben Ali assured Rumsfeld that Tunisia was committed to fighting “all forms of terrorism and extremism,” which Bel Ali called a “scourge.”

Without explicitly citing Hamas’ victory in Palestinian elections, Ben Ali’s statement urged unspecified countries to continue providing “material assistance and support” to the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas refuses to accept Israel’s existence, and the Bush administration says it will have nothing to do with Hamas until it reverses that stand.

After his official meetings, Rumsfeld visited the Carthage Museum atop Byrsa Hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. He was shown ruins of the ancient city-state of Carthage, which was founded by Phoenician traders in 814 B.C. at a site slightly northeast of modern Tunis. Carthage became the center of an empire that dominated most of northern Africa until it was crushed by the Romans in the Punic Wars.

The U.S. military has had relations with Tunisia for decades and Rumsfeld lavished praised on the government for its stance against extremism. He said Tunisia is working on a legal arrangement that would permit U.S. forces to have more extensive contacts and exercises with the Tunisian military.

Rumsfeld described Tunisia as a moderate country and a democracy, although he noted its progress has been “moving at difference paces” on the political, social and economic fronts.  Ben Ali and his Constitutional Democratic Rally party have controlled the government, including the legislature, since 1987.

International human rights groups have criticized the government for perpetuating a closed-door political system that bars dissenters.

Rumsfeld arrived Saturday from Sicily, where he had attended a meeting of NATO defense ministers. The Pentagon chief said he was making his first visit to North Africa to encourage more cooperation against terrorism and to advance long-standing relationships with Tunisia and Morocco.

U.S. relations with Algeria, which were cool for many year, have begun to grow closer.

“Each country has been, in its way, providing moderate leadership and been constructive in ... the struggle against violent extremism,” Rumsfeld said. “It’s something we value and want to strengthen.”

Tunis is an unusual, but not unprecedented, destination for an American defense secretary. U.S. military ties to the country date to World War II, when the U.S. Army fought with the allies against the Germans. The North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial is about 10 miles outside Tunis.

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