The next war against terrorism is taking shape in this West African country, as African nations backed by the United States and France are readying a force to recapture Mali's north from extremists linked to al-Qaida and prevent another haven for jihadists from taking root on the continent.
But whether a military intervention can defuse such a complex crisis remains in doubt. Mali's transitional government, installed after a military coup earlier this year, is weak and lacks legitimacy. Its poorly equipped army is in disarray.
African and Western powers are already in disagreement over the timing and goals of a military strike. Also unclear is whether regional African forces are strong enough to defeat well-armed militants in desert terrain the size of Texas without help on the ground from Western armies.
Johnnie Carson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said this week that "the military concept proposes an Africa-led effort, but several key questions must be answered to ensure that this effort is also well-planned and well-resourced."
Nevertheless, after months of hesitation, the momentum for a military intervention has surged in the region and among Western powers, as the radical Islamists and al-Qaida militants have deepened their grip over the north.
Analysts and U.N. officials say that any military strike is still months away, but the United States and France are playing an active diplomatic role in it and encouraging African nations to take the lead — a model used most recently in Somalia, where Islamist radicals also seized much of the country. Last month, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) approved a 3,300-member force for northern Mali.
Thousands of Malians have fled to this capital to escape the Islamists' brutal rule, and many say military action is the only way to liberate the north. "It's the only solution," said Aziz Maiga, a 27-year-old rapper who recently left the north. "Negotiating with the Islamists will not work."
The American role has intensified since U.S. officials implicated al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb — the terrorism network's North and West Africa affiliate known as AQIM — in the September assault on a U.S. mission in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. AQIM is one of the three major groups that now control northern Mali.
In a telephone interview, a senior Islamist leader denounced the United States, declaring that its people are "against Islam" and that Hurricane Sandy was "a punishment from God."
"If the Western countries send troops, that will be fine. We are prepared for war," said Oumar Ould Hamaha, the military leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, known as MUJWA, which is an offshoot of AQIM. "If they don't come here, one day we will attack them. If we cannot do this in our time, our sons and the next generation will attack the West."
This landlocked former French colony, much of it in the Sahara Desert, is one of the world's poorest countries despite an abundance of natural resources, including gold and uranium.
Long before the seizure of northern Mali, AQIM kidnapped Westerners and operated a drug pipeline to Europe and other criminal enterprises to finance its operations.
In March, the group and other radical Islamists joined forces with secular Tuareg separatists, angered by decades of political marginalization and neglect by the central government. They overran the north, taking advantage of a power vacuum that followed the military coup in Mali's capital, Bamako, in March.
The Islamists then seized control from the Tuareg rebels. They imposed a strict form of sharia law on a moderate Muslim population and began enforcing it with public beatings, amputations, stonings and prison sentences.
Initially, there were two main groups of extremists — AQIM and Ansar Dine, or "defenders of the faith," which is led mostly by Malian hard-liners and linked to AQIM. But by September, MUJWA — which splintered from AQIM late last year — seized significant territory. Despite their differences, all three groups remain loosely linked. They have been joined by some fighters from Boko Haram, an Islamist force in Nigeria, according to the United Nations, Malian and regional African military officials.
French President Francois Hollande recently cited intelligence that some French Muslims had joined the jihadists and could perpetrate terrorist acts upon their return to France. Mali's neighbors are also worried about radical Islamists spilling across their borders.
"They have killed so many of our soldiers, our sons," said Sadou Diallo, the former mayor of Gao who fled to Bamako. "They have abused our sisters. They have destroyed 50 years of development in the north."
The military intervention in Somalia is widely seen as a template for Mali. In Somalia, the al-Qaida-linked group al-Shabab had seized much of Somalia and imposed harsh decrees in the name of Islam. But by this year, Somalia's neighbors backed by the United States and the U.N. had pushed the militants out of their major strongholds.
For the mission in Mali, the French are expected to help train the African troops and provide them with aircraft, communications and intelligence aid, according to reports circulating in Paris.
The United States is expected to supply intelligence-gathering equipment, help transport the African troops and provide other logistical help.
But in closed-door Security Council consultations Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice urged the council to support early elections in Mali, noting that U.S. law restricts the United States from providing direct military assistance to Mali because its democratically elected president was ousted in a coup in March. Rice also voiced skepticism about the military capacity of West African forces to prevail in battle with the northern militants.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed similar concerns.
"A military operation may be required as a last resort to deal with the most hard-line extremist and criminal elements in the north," Ban wrote in a report to the Security Council. "But, before that stage is reached, the focus must be on initiating a broad-based and inclusive political dialogue aimed at forging national consensus . . . and addressing the long-standing grievances" of the communities in the north.
Senior Malian military commanders said they were in close contact with their U.S. military counterparts and were assured of American assistance even if elections were not held.
"The U.S. officials say they are ready to support us," said Col. Salif Traore, a top Malian military official. "They will find indirect ways to help the ECOWAS forces."
Mathieu Guidere, a researcher specializing in North Africa's Islamist movements, said the 3,300-man African force would likely prove insufficient. Northern Mali comprises more than 300,000 square miles of harsh desert. Moreover, there are between 10,000 and 15,000 heavily armed Islamists, he said.
Deploying black African soldiers, many of them non-Muslim, in a region inhabited by Arabs and Tuaregs, many of them fundamentalist Muslims, could risk a backlash. Any occupation could look like religious and ethnic warfare to restore authority by the largely black leadership in Bamako, Guidere said.
Unlike Somalia, whose neighbors supported military action, some of Mali's neighbors are wary of such missions. Nigeria, a regional military powerhouse, is grappling with its own Islamist threat from Boko Haram. Algeria fears a military strike would drive northern Mali's militants back into Algeria, where many AQIM leaders battled the government in the 1990s.
Following recent visits to Algiers by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and top French officials, Algeria has shown more willingness for a military intervention, but only under certain conditions. Like the United States and European countries, Algeria wants any military action to focus on destroying the militants and their capabilities.
Malian military commanders said they were confident they could take the lead — as long as they received assistance, especially from the United States and its armed drones.
"Even if we had 1,000 soldiers, but with a big air component, it will solve the problem," said Col. Oumar Dao, who is in charge of the military's major operations. "The drones were effective in Somalia. Look what happened to al-Shabab."
According to residents and officials, the Islamists are preparing for a guerrilla conflict. New training camps have cropped up, including one at Gao's airport, said Diallo, the former Gao mayor. "If the international community does not act quickly, the north will become a more dangerous terrain to reclaim," he added.
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Cody reported from Paris. Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.