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The Battle For Mali: Why It Matters For Africa, The West, And The Rest Of The World
January 21, 2013
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11 days ago, France started a bombing campaign in the African country of Mali.

The goal is to stop Islamist militants from overthrowing the government and effectively taking over the country - turning Mali into a "terrorist state".

Well today, French forces have pulled off a key victory.

Along with soldiers from Mali, French troops have seized two important towns - Diabaly and Douentza - according to France's defence minister.

The Islamist rebels took control of the towns a week ago, but left after the French started pounding rebel areas with air strikes - using fighter planes and helicopter gunships.

"We are truly really grateful to the French who came in the nick of time," said Gaoussou Kone, 34, the head of a local youth association.

"Without the French, not only would there no longer be a Diabaly, there would soon no longer be a Mali. These people wanted to go all the way to Bamako."

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Diabaly is 350 kilometres north of Mali's capital Bamako, and had been something of a base for the Islamist rebels.

The town of Douentza is about 800km from Bamako.

France also has sent 2,000 ground troops into Mali to help its army fight the militants, who control territory in the north about the size of Texas.

The militants are made up of homegrown groups and groups with links to al-Qaida.

They have imposed a harsh form of Islamic Sharia Law in northern Mali - driving hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes.

They force women to wear veils, cut off the hands of anyone who breaks the law, and carry out public executions and whippings.

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The fear - for western countries - is that the militants will use Mali as a base to launch attacks on western targets.

Yesterday, the French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France is seeking "total reconquest" of northern Mali.

"We will not leave any pockets" of resistance, he told French television.

The Islamists seized control of much of northern Mali after a coup last March, led by mutinous soldiers in the capital Bamako.

France has called on African countries to lead the combat mission, with some 3,000 troops. But it could be weeks before they're ready to actually do that.

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Several hundred troops from Nigeria, Togo and Benin just arrived in Bamako to help train an African force for Mali.

Troops from Senegal and from Chad (who know the deserts and terrain of northern Mali) also have arrived.

Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara is calling on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to send troops as well.

Canada has pulled most of its staff and their families out of its embassy in Mali, and is urging any Canadians still in the country to leave right away.

Foreign Affairs says it now has a skeleton staff in Bamako, with limited ability to help any Canadians who stay behind.

If you want to read more about the conflict in Mali, we've pulled together pieces from a number of different sources.

The Guardian has a piece entitled 'Mali: How Did It Come To This?' Correspondent Jason Burke writes...

"The best-case scenario is that conventional military pressure and the killing of key figures, combined with a loss of local support, sends AQIM and its allies back to its previous status as low-grade desert thieves, kidnappers and traffickers."

"The worst-case scenario is that the conflict infects neighbouring countries with existing problems with Islamic extremism, and eventually the entire region. Both involve plenty of blood spilt in the sand."

al-Jazeera has an opinion piece from Mark LeVine, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California Irvine.

He makes the argument that the situation in Mali is the product of French colonialism writing...

"The dispatching of French soldiers to beat back rapidly advancing Salafi militants in northern Mali represents the convergence of multiple circles of blowback from two centuries of French policies in Africa."

"Some date back to the beginning of the 19th century, others to policies put in place during the last few years. Together, they spell potential disaster for France and the United States, and even more so for Mali and the surrounding countries."

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Business Insider has a posted a piece by The Christian Science Monitor entitled 'What Western Powers Are Up Against In Mali And Algeria.'

It answers 10 questions, including What Do Militants Believe?, Where Do Militants Get Money? and What have governments done so far to combat them?

CNN's Tim Lister put together this report entitled 'Six Reasons Events In Mali Matter.' He includes Location, Exporting Jihad, and A Test Of International Will.

Here's a couple of excerpts, first with respect to location.

"So vast and inhospitable are the deserts of North Africa that groups with local knowledge (and a fleet of 4 x 4 vehicles) can make serious money from trafficking, whether in drugs, people or other contraband."

And with respect to international will.

"Mali is now a test bed for the effectiveness of international action against militant Islam in Africa -- action that brings together very different capabilities and cultures and that has an ill-defined goal."

Mali is a country rich with music. The website bridgesfrombamako.com put up this post about a group of Malian artists who recorded a song called 'Mali-ko'.

The website says the song is in response to the conflict, writing...

"The most important message from the artists behind "Mali-ko" is that the Malian people are ready and willing to stand up to the threat before them."

CNN also has a piece about Mali's music and culture and how it relates to politics and the current conflict. Freelance writer and world music journalist Andy Morgan writes...

"Like Jamaica or Ireland, Mali's music and culture are its primary asset, its shop-window to the world, its "gold and cotton" as one famous musician put it."

"Within northern Mali itself, however, and throughout the Muslim world, this is not seen as a war on terror but as a cultural conflict, one that pits a group of people who feel that the future of their society will be best served by rejecting Western liberal values and returning to the core tenets of Islam against another group who believe in religious tolerance, secularism, democracy and music."

Here's an opinion piece from a blog called Dekhnstan (Mauritania), written by Nasser Weddady. In this piece, entitled 'A Disaster 50 Years In The Making', Weddady writes...

"Mali's problems did not start with the fall of Libya's Qadhafi. They started even before it gained independence from France. A diverse set of ethnic groups were forced to coexist without much thought of the immense potential for conflict caused by that arrangement."

"A decade into wars of pacification, Western nations should resist the urge to fight in yet another war without fully thinking through the consequences- potentially disastrous. None of this is an argument to look the other way on the spread of Jihadism, it is a call to think, then act decisively. Too much is at stake."

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