By Pascal Fletcher
BAMAKO (Reuters) - When former colonial power France sent warplanes and troops to Mali on January 11 in a historic intervention, it did not just halt a menacing advance on the capital Bamako by Islamist rebels allied to al Qaeda.
It also snuffed out what diplomats and local politicians say was a political conspiracy in the capital to oust Mali's interim civilian rulers, an attempted replay of the March 2012 coup that had plunged the Sahel state into turmoil and made it a potential launch pad for attacks on Western interests.
The Bamako events, obscured by media focus on the military action, underline how 'winning the peace' in Mali will be as crucial as success on the Sahara battleground by the French-led and Western-backed war against the Islamist jihadists.
At the same time in January as columns of Islamist rebels were lunging south, backers of the 2012 putsch protested violently in Bamako, burning tires, blocking key bridges over the Niger River and publicly demanding the resignation of transitional President Dioncounda Traore and his prime minister.
"It was a coup underway ... the French intervention also stopped this other plan," Tiebile Drame, a prominent Malian opposition politician and former presidential candidate, told Reuters, in an account corroborated by diplomats in Bamako.
As French ambassador Christian Rouyer later put it, Mali had been "inches away from plunging into a black hole" - once again.
Since January, France's campaign in Mali with African allies has claimed success in 'degrading' the jihadist threat, with reports of top local al Qaeda commanders killed.
But Mali and its foreign backers are now also focusing on elections and reconciliation talks to reconstruct a state once hailed as a model democracy in Africa.
"Military action is not enough ... To bring lasting peace to the country, we need a political process," Drame said.
He sees this as the political equivalent of rebuilding from an earthquake or tsunami, reconstructing shattered state institutions and the national army, and healing reopened fissures of racial hatred.
Successive shocks of a Tuareg separatist revolt that routed the army, a coup, and the traumatic 10-month occupation of more than half the nation by al Qaeda-allied rebels - now reversed by the French - rocked Mali's foundations last year.
They ripped open ethnic fault lines between black African peoples of south and central Mali and lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs of the Saharan north running through a Sahel region fused together over centuries by overlapping ancient empires.
"Our society was already unstitched, but now it's torn into a thousand pieces," said Mohamed ag Ossade, sitting outside his "Tumast" Tuareg restaurant and cultural center in Bamako.
"We need to make a new Mali now," said Ossade, remembering better times when visitors from all races came to his restaurant to eat, talk and hear haunting Tuareg melodies.
TALKING TO THE NORTH
With France calling the shots in the anti-jihadist war and also urging national dialogue, interim President Traore has offered talks to the Tuareg rebel group MNLA, on the condition it drops any claims for independence for its Saharan homeland.
Malian authorities rule out any solution that compromises national sovereignty and integrity, but analysts say without a resolution to northern grievances there can be no lasting peace.
"It's a mirror image of Sudan, only in reverse ... it isn't going to get better," Vicki Huddleston, a former U.S. ambassador to Mali, said, making an analogy with African-led South Sudan's 2011 secession from Arab-ruled Sudan after years of war.
Presidential and legislative elections are set for July in Mali. A credible vote producing a legitimate leadership is seen as key to unlocking donor aid frozen after the coup, to help a battered economy that contracted 1.5 percent last year.
Reflecting an unequal divide, the more fertile south of the Sahel state constitutes 95 percent of GDP, 91 percent of the population and 99.5 percent of tax revenue, the IMF says.
But the idea of talking with the Tuaregs jars with many southerners, who blame the northerners for precipitating "la crise", as most Malians refer to the past year of turmoil.
It was the Tuareg-led separatist revolt from the north in early 2012, swelled by arms and fighters from the Libyan conflict, which pulverized the weak army and triggered the March 22 coup in Bamako. This toppled President Amadou Tourani Toure, who had ruled for a decade through a loose political consensus.
The coup paralyzed the Malian state, making it powerless to stop Islamist radicals hijacking the northern rebellion and occupying the vast territory it had seized. The Islamists included al Qaeda's North African branch AQIM, which had already infiltrated into Mali's ungoverned north, using it as a location to hold kidnapped western hostages to demand large ransoms.
"Should we talk to the north? Talk to whom?", said Mohamed ag Boubacar, a 22-year-old Tuareg in Bamako's bustling artisan market, a microcosm of multi-racial Mali, where Tuareg and Arab craftsmen rub shoulders with African carvers and leatherworkers.
He and many residents in the south see little distinction between the Tuareg rebels and their Islamist former allies - AQIM, its splinter group MUJAO and the home-grown Ansar Dine movement led by Tuareg warlord turned Islamist Iyad ag Ghali.
"MNLA, Ansar Dine, MUJAO, AQIM, they are the same, they need to be punished," said Alou Gniminou, a 39-year-old cobbler who is secretary general of the artisan market. Malian prosecutors have already issued arrest warrants for the main rebel leaders.
"I want the French to neutralize them all," said Boubacar.
But France and its western allies such as the United States, say Bamako must open broad inclusive talks with northern communities and their leaders to hear their grievances.
NO "BONUS FOR REBELLION"
The restless Tuaregs have launched successive revolts since independence from France in 1960, alleging neglect and mistreatment by the black-led central government in Bamako.
Over the last decade, some desert warlords formed alliances with criminal gangs smuggling drugs and cigarettes. Then came hardened AQIM fighters, practiced hostage takers, adding to instability in the lawless Sahara.
Deposed President Toure and previous rulers dealt with Tuareg revolts through a combination of repression and buying off warlords and fighters with handouts of money and jobs, including posts in the national armed forces.
Many believe this tactic of pacification through patronage was an incentive for revolt, and that it should not be repeated.
"The idea is not to give a bonus for rebellion," said Drame, saying any dialogue should include not just rebellious Tuaregs - a small segment of Mali's 16 million population - but also tribal and religious leaders and representatives of other ethnic groups in the north like black settlers, Arabs and Songhai.
But with popular feelings against the Tuaregs running high, not least because of an alleged massacre of Malian soldiers at Aguelhok in early 2012, any attempt to reintegrate northern fighters into the national army as before will be difficult.
Most Tuareg officers absorbed into the army joined the northern revolt. Only a few stayed loyal to the Malian state.
"There is not a cat in hell's chance that they (the Tuareg rebels) can be incorporated into the army, the army would mutiny," a western diplomat said, asking not to be named.
HOSTAGES AND DRUGS
The political consensus presided over by Toure, known by his initials ATT, won praise as a showcase democracy in coup-plagued West Africa. But critics say it was a hollow edifice that allowed corruption, criminality and impunity to flourish.
Besides hostage-taking, drug-trafficking also fueled the criminal economy of the ungoverned north. This came to light in 2009 with the discovery among dunes in the Gao region of the burned out fuselage of a Boeing 727, which Western anti-narcotics experts said had been carrying a cargo of cocaine.
Diplomats and analysts say there is evidence that what Brussels-based International Crisis Group called "profitable collusion" existed between representatives of the Malian state under ATT and these criminal activities in the north.
Government was exercised by "a loose network of personal, clientelistic and even mafia-style alliances", ICG said.
Ending impunity and restoring rule of law will not be easy.
A Spanish ex-policemen suspected by Malian, Moroccan and Spanish investigators to be the mastermind of the 2009 "Air Cocaine" flights of drugs from Latin America to Europe via Mali still moves around freely in Bamako, diplomatic sources said.
With the plane's French pilot, the Spaniard was mysteriously freed from arrest in August last year. The sources, who asked not to be named, said the current bodyguards accompanying him around town were members of the Malian security services.
Mohamed Mahamoud El Oumourani, president of Mali's Arab community, said rebuilding a strong state was essential. "But it should be justice, not settling of scores," he said.
Rights groups accuse Malian government soldiers of torture, executions and disappearances of suspected Islamist rebels and collaborators since January. They say Peuhls, Arabs and Tuaregs were targeted.
Foreign governments hope Mali's coming elections can restore civilian authority over the military, whose meddling has persisted following the March 22 coup.
Even after international pressure forced coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo to install interim civilian leaders in April, the U.S.-trained officer, who speaks English and sometimes likes to wear a U.S. Marine pin on his uniform, keeps a hand in politics.
Individuals close to him occupy the government's main security posts, and he forced transitional Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra to resign in December, citing disagreements.
Washington says Sanogo and other junta leaders must remove themselves "completely and permanently" from politics.
France's decisive leadership of the war against the rebels has sidelined Sanogo. But diplomats say he still has some support within lower ranks of the military, and among those in the wider population who saw in him a hope for change.
Mali's European and African allies have tried to engineer a quiet exit for Sanogo, offering him study scholarships overseas.
His supporters, blamed for sometimes violent protests in Bamako, including the storming in May of the presidential palace in which interim President Traore was badly beaten, press for Sanogo to have a role in any political transition.
Supporters of last year's coup oppose France's military intervention, saying it aims to keep in power Mali's failed old political class. French officials reject such accusations.
"This is not a tutelage ... It's not a French agenda, but a Malian one," French Development Minister Pascal Canfin told reporters last month.
French leaders have said they will start pulling out the more than 4,000 French troops from Mali in March.
As African troops and European military trainers join the Mali operation, parading a kaleidoscope of camouflage uniforms in Bamako, many believe the international community needs to maintain a long-term security presence and watch in Mali to prevent al Qaeda from resettling in the desert north.
"You have to watch the north like milk on the stove," said Drame, who has also worked for Amnesty International.
"If you don't keep following this for years to come, it could be a problem," said a former European ambassador to Mali, asking not to be named. "But I don't think it's Afghanistan, it can be resolved."
(Additional reporting by David Lewis and Tiemoko Diallo; editing by Janet McBride)