Two groups wage a bitter fight for control over the West African nation, writes Andy Morgan for al-Jazeera.
Cornwall, United Kingdom - "Will they? Won't they?" Watching the two largest rebel groups in Northern Mali, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) and Ansar ud-Dine, pirouette around each other as they try to create a united front is a bit like watching the mating ritual of an rare species of bird. Western journalists and analysts, who know the habits and motivations of the protagonists to varying degrees, are forced to gaze from afar - but even the best-informed are at a complete loss to accurately predict what will happen next.
The stakes couldn't be higher - both for Mali and West Africa as a whole. If the Islamists in Ansar ud-Dine and their quietly Machiavellian leader Iyad Ag Ghali fail to come to terms with the nationalist and secular NMLA, then the prospect is either a protracted civil war in the north or a rapid defeat of the NMLA by the better-equipped and better-funded Ansar ud-Dine and their allies in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
If a deal can be reached along the lines of the protocol signed by both parties in Gao on May 26, then a new Republic of Azawad - with the word "Islamic" officially riveted to its name - will come into being. It will be governed by Sharia law and ruled by an alliance of Tuareg and Arab bigwigs, some with close and fraternal ties to the al-Qaeda emirs who have been busy kidnapping westerners, protecting drug- and people-smuggling rackets and taking on the armies of Mali, Algeria and Mauritania for the past decade.
The May 26 protocol only fell at the last hurdle. After it had been signed, Iyad Ag Ghali issued a communiqué from Timbuktu on May 28 which added a boost of undiluted Salafism to some of the points already agreed. Hama Ag Mahmoud, the NMLA's political chief in exile, deemed the communiqué too hardline and refused to endorse it, proclaiming the protocol null and void. Ag Ghali's response was terse, arrogant even: "Take it or leave it."