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With France on his side, Mali's military commander confident of victory

BAMAKO, Mali - The commander of Mali's army is so confident of a swift French and Malian military victory against al-Qaida-linked militias in the country's north that he declared the war would be over in a month.

Taxi drivers and shopkeepers listened to Ibrahim Dahirou Dembele on crackly radios across the dusty capital on Tuesday after France's military attack, code-named Operation Serval, drove militants out of key central Malian towns of Diabaly and Doutenza on Monday.

But on one shady street corner under a tree in the capital, Bamako, university lecturer Yacouba Diallo, 30, who had come for his customary afternoon glass of foamy bitter-sweet tea, wasn't so sure that the Islamists can easily be eliminated. He fears that once French troops depart, the threat could re-emerge.

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"The Malian military has been tested in this war and found wanting. Everyone knows that if there was no French intervention, the Malian army couldn't have resisted the jihadists," he said, downing the small glass of strong tea in a gulp.

"When I was young, I thought we had one of the strongest armies in the region, but with this war, I saw otherwise. I was shocked the army couldn't stop the Islamists' advance."

Like many Malians, Diallo has suffered a profound crisis of confidence in the Malian state and its army. For him, the rapid retreat of the militants in the past few days wasn't quite enough to quash the recent terror that the Islamists would reach the capital and take power, a fright that took shape as the rebels advanced southward, swiftly seizing territory and towns earlier this month.

The main fears came after the Islamists seized the town of Konna, on Jan. 10, threatening Mopti, around 140 miles from Bamako, and nearby Sevare, which is important for its major airport. It was terrifying at the time, but sports store owner Mamadou Traore, 41, who carries the latest smart phone in his pocket, can laugh about it now.

"Everyone was just expecting to see them here in Bamako. Everyone would have had to give up smoking," he said, chuckling huskily. "And everyone would have cut their pants short because that is what the Islamists say." (Some Muslim fundamentalists believe that a man's garment should not be worn below the ankle.)

Three militant groups _ Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJOA) and al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) _ remain in towns further north, Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, according to Alexis Kalambry, editor of Les Echos newspaper in Bamako, based on reports from his journalists in the north.

After the fall of the regime of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya in 2012, militias swept across Mali's porous borders with what activists say were truckloads of looted weapons and launched a rebellion.

They took advantage of the chaos and paralysis that followed a military coup in Mali, seizing control of the north. Fighters from the nomadic Tuareg tribe, under the banner of the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), launched the fight in a bid to create an independent Tuareg homeland, but they were soon driven out by Ansar Dine and other extremists, who imposed a strict interpretation of Shariah law at odds with local Malian custom.

Under that interpretation, they have been stoning people, amputating limbs, banning smoking and placing severe restrictions on women's clothing and movement.

France has deployed 2,150 troops out of a planned 2,500-strong contingent in an operation _ highly popular in Mali _ aiming to eliminate the Islamists, restore the country's territorial integrity, and stabilize it politically. French flags are on sale in the capital along with the Malian flags being raised to celebrate the country's current participation in Africa's international soccer tournament, the African Cup of Nations, under way in South Africa.

"I really appreciate the bombing by the French forces," said Traore, the shopkeeper, surrounded by shelves stuffed with dozens of uninflated soccer balls. "Anything that happens to those jihadists is a good thing. The fight in the name of Islam but they are not good Muslims. They abused women; they amputated people's limbs. How can you call them Muslims?"

Ask him about reports of civilian casualties in the French bombings and he swiftly brushes it aside.

"It's impossible to protect all civilians when bombing is going on," he said.

Traore's sports business is unaffected, by the war, but the country's economy has been hit but the collapse of the tourist sector after extremists last year captured the main tourist sites in the north, including ancient mausoleums in Timbuktu, and after several cases of kidnappings and killings of foreigners in the Sahel region in recent years.

"With the terrorist advance, no tourists are coming so the economy is depressed. We don't know how long will it be before tourists come back to the northern cities," Diallo, the university lecturer, said.

Many Malians hope the French will stay at least a year, doubtful that Mali's army can protect the country from terror attacks by the Islamists, even with a planned 3,300-strong force of regional African troops, around a third of whom arrived in Mali in recent days.

"When France leaves, the question is whether it is possible for Malian troops to ensure security. That's the big question," said Diallo.

"The few remaining rebels might not be able to face French and Malian troops in battle, but what's going to be dangerous is they are here now and we don't know where they are, and they can launch bombings and attacks on the population at any time. They can still be dangerous."

 

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