The tribal leaders of a group of tiny Pacific islands are taking Uncle Sam to court, arguing that after four decades of rule the U.S. government is reneging on a promise of freedom and self-government.

"Instead of leading us along a course of economic and political self-dependence, the U.S. government has imposed a welfare state," complained Yutaka Gibbons, high chief and leader of the tribal council of Palau.Gibbons was in Washington to file a lawsuit Monday, charging that the United States has violated its pledge to help the island nation toward self-government and, instead, is leading it down a path of economic ruin.

The suit names Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan, whose department has jurisdiction over U.S. territories.

The department had no comment on the suit. A spokesman, Larry Morgan, said Interior lawyers had not had time to review it.

The Interior Department has administered the activities of Palau, an economically depressed string of small islands 600 miles east of the Philippines, since 1951 as a trust territory established by the United Nations after World War II. All other such trust territories have achieved some degree of independence.

But Palau's fate seems to have taken the opposite direction. Last October, the Interior Department tightened control over Palau by restricting - among other things - the island government's ability to borrow money or enter into commercial contracts. The order also gave U.S. veto power over laws passed by the Palauan legislature.

The action essentially returned U.S. control of the island to levels before 1980, Palauan officials contend.