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A volunteer fighter in a military training exercise near the town of Mopti by members of Ganda Koy, one of several militia groups in Mali that seek to recapture the north of Mali from the Islamist rebels who seized it earlier this year. Because of a severe shortage of weapons and military equipment, most of the volunteers are using wooden sticks, instead of guns, in their training exercises. There are growing fears that the poorly disciplined militia groups could be dangerously out of control in the fighting for Mali's north. An international military force, possibly including Canadian military trainers, is gearing up for a military operation to defeat the northern rebels next year.Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail

At an army base near the capital city, Mali's soldiers live in squalid mud huts. Raw sewage flows in the potholed dirt roads, while goats and chickens wander past two-room shacks where families of 15 live.

"The country has completely neglected us," says Bakary, a 20-year-old soldier. "Look at the sewage in the streets. We're living in terrible conditions. We don't have good food or health or sanitation."

Nearby, a group of army officers is lounging outside, drinking tea and smoking as they argue about whether to arrest a visiting journalist. Lower-ranking officers squabble with senior officers, openly disobeying their orders.

The disarray and discontent, further muddled by a confusing mix of freelance militia groups, are signs of the huge task that confronts Western governments – possibly including Canada – as they gear up to train thousands of Malian forces for the world's next war: a battle against the Islamist radicals who have seized control of the northern half of this West African country.

The military operation, with strong support from Europe and the United States, could begin as early as March or April. It will be a crucial effort to expel al-Qaeda-linked militants from the three main cities of northern Mali, rolling back the growing power of terrorists who have murdered and kidnapped their way across a wide swathe of North and West Africa.

The challenge will be nearly as complex as anything Canada faced in Afghanistan. The obstacles, as in Afghanistan, are not merely a determined band of Islamist jihadists, but also a ferment of ethnic tensions, a proliferation of armed militias, a collapsing state, extreme poverty, a harsh climate, and an anarchic army.

Canada is still deciding whether to join the military training effort in Mali, but some analysts expect that it will. If it does, it will not have much time to try to help fix an under-equipped Malian military that has long been notorious for corruption, human rights abuses, an unclear chain of command, an appetite for political power, and a reluctance to accept civilian control. Years of earlier training efforts by Canada and the United States failed to make a dent in the army's problems.

Eight months ago, junior officers from the Kati army base launched a mutiny that burgeoned into a full-fledged coup, which in turn triggered the fall of the north as Tuareg and Islamist rebels took advantage of the political vacuum. Even after officially giving up power, the putschists still wield considerable influence in Mali's political corridors, sometimes openly opposing the new civilian leaders.

Malian soldiers have also been involved in a series of unexplained killings and revenge attacks against Tuaregs and Muslims this year, including the massacre of 16 Muslim preachers at an army checkpoint – apparently because the soldiers mistook the long-bearded preachers for jihadists.

"It seemed to be cold-blooded murder," said a diplomat in Bamako. "It shows how Mali's army could behave in a war in the north. It's an army in complete disarray."

But the army is not the only challenge for the planned military operation. Thousands of exiles from northern Mali have joined militia groups that aim to recapture the north. They have become dangerously loose cannons.

The militias operate without any military co-ordination, little training, few weapons or uniforms, not much discipline, and a hankering for revenge against the Islamist and Tuareg rebels. Some were involved in atrocities against Tuaregs during an earlier rebellion in the 1990s. Some have already compiled lists of enemies that they are targeting for retribution this time.

"They're extremely dangerous," the diplomat said. "It's very worrying. We don't want this operation in the north to become a genocide."

Mali's government has given unofficial support to the militia groups, allowing them to take over government buildings. The army claims that it will take control of the militias and put them under army command.

But a visit to the militia bases near the front-line town of Mopti, where three militias have about 3,000 volunteers in their ranks, found no sign of any military supervision. Most of the volunteers are angry young men and women with little discipline or experience.

Hundreds of volunteers in the biggest militia group, Ganda Koy, are training for battle with wooden sticks because of their shortage of weapons. As a herd of cows watches in bemusement, they march and run through the scrub desert, most wearing T-shirts and sandals or sneakers instead of proper military gear. Arguments erupt between men and women volunteers, with one woman hauled away forcibly when she screams at the men for insulting her.

Fadiala Sidibe, the police commissioner in Mopti region, says the militias are a threat to Mali because they were founded on ethnic loyalty.

"They call themselves patriots," he says. "But someone who loves his country won't pretend to be a ranking military officer. They aren't educated enough to be officers, but they call themselves 'colonel' or 'captain.' They could spark a civil war between ethnic groups. Or they could become bandits."

Most of the militia volunteers have stories about persecution and humiliation by the Islamist rebels in the north. "I couldn't keep seeing my brothers and sisters suffering there any more," said Adama Aliou, a 25-year-old student who left the northern city of Gao and joined Ganda Koy last month after the Islamists imposed their harsh interpretation of sharia law.

"They are monsters," he said. "Everything they do is inhuman. If they see a girl without a veil, they take her and cut off her hair. I saw it many times. If we have a war, I want to take a gun and fight them."

The militia leaders are determined to join the international campaign to recapture the north, with or without permission. They complain that the intervention has been delayed too long.

"We're in a hurry," says Djibril Diallo, commander of the Ganda Koy base in Sevare. He says the number of volunteers in his militia has quadrupled to more than 1,800 in recent months.

Mali's military committee, the new name for the former coup leaders, insists that the army is ready for battle against the Islamist rebels, needing only a bit of training, some air power and intelligence support from Europe and the United States.

But interviews in the towns of Mopti and Sévaré, just 50 kilometres from the rebel-controlled zone in northern Mali, make it clear that the Malian authorities are still in disarray.

Heavy machine guns are mounted in the back of the army's pick-up trucks, but the soldiers at the checkpoints are apathetic and sleepy, barely bothering to check documents. Mr. Sidibe, the police commissioner, says he has only three working vehicles and no working radios for his entire district, and that the army and police are hampered by a lack of training and low salaries. "Because of that, we are corrupted, and we are not respected by the people."

It's only a symptom of a much broader problem: a political stalemate in Mali's power structures. Nobody is certain whether the new government can control the military, and there are deep divisions between the interim President, Dioncounda Traore, and the new Prime Minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra.

"There's complete confusion at the top," says Bakary Mariko, spokesman for the former coup leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, who remains a key behind-the-scenes player.

"There are real tensions between the army and the prime minister," the army spokesman said. "He's not giving us a chance to operate in the north. That's what we want to change."

---------------------------------------------------------------------------Precarious situation

The UN Security Council Resolution 2071 "calls upon … Member States, regional and international organizations, including the African Union and the European Union, to provide as soon as possible co-ordinated assistance, expertise, training and capacity-building support to the Armed and Security Forces of Mali, consistent with their domestic requirements, in order to restore the authority of the State of Mali over its entire national territory, to uphold the unity and territorial integrity of Mali and to reduce the threat posed by AQIM and affiliated groups …"

Adopted Oct. 12

"They could spark a civil war between ethnic groups. Or they could become bandits."

Fadiala Sidibe, the police commissioner in Mopti region, speaking of militias that have received unofficial support from the Mali government.

"All scenarios are still possible, including another military coup and further social unrest in the capital, which threaten to undermine the transitional institutions and create a power vacuum that could allow religious extremism and terrorist violence to spread in Mali and beyond."

Report by the International Crisis Group, Sept. 24

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