By David Lewis
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Within weeks, Mali has plunged from being a sovereign democracy to a fractured territory without a state, occupied by competing rebel groups in the north while politicians and coup leaders in the south jostle for control of the capital Bamako.
There is no sign the broken nation can be put back together soon - raising concerns among neighbors and Western powers of the emergence of a lawless "rogue state" exploited by al Qaeda and criminals.
"We have never been in such a dire situation at any other time in our history," said Mahmoud Dicko, influential head of the Islamic High Council in the poor former French colony once seen as a poster child for electoral democracy in West Africa.
"There is no state and two-thirds of the country is out of control," he said of the seizure by a mix of Islamists and Tuareg-led separatists of the northern desert territory one-and-a-half-times the size of France.
Ask Malians in the street what they think of the crisis and most will say they are "depassé" - a French term for being overwhelmed by events that go beyond comprehension.
Even before March 22's coup and ensuing rebel advance, Mali was struggling to deal with this year's drought on the southern rim of the Sahara. Over 270,000 Malians have fled their homes as the violence makes bringing aid to hunger victims even harder.
But while Mali is now firmly on world radar screens as a serious security threat in the making, neither Western powers nor its neighbors can agree on how to come to its rescue.
A deal struck between the junta and negotiators from the 15-state West African ECOWAS group was meant to see the army hand back the reins of power to civilians in return for neighbors giving military help to regain the north.
The naming of an interim president has nominally shifted the seat of power from a dusty out-of-town barracks back to the repaired presidential palace. But mid-ranking coup-leading officers still hold sway, last week arresting top politicians and military brass.
A personality cult has sprung up around Captain Amadou Sanogo, the hitherto obscure U.S.-trained officer turned junta chief whose face is now emblazoned on badges pinned to the chests of soldiers and civilians.
"You cannot push aside a military committee that has led a coup," he told reporters in Bambara, one of Mali's national languages. "You can say you don't want soldiers in power but nowhere in the world are they pushed aside."
Unless new elections are held by May 23 - an all but impossible task given the situation in the north, Sanogo will, under the ECOWAS accord, have a say in shaping the transition body due to run Mali until polls can be held.
But a glimpse at what led to the coup shows that even when elections are held, they offer no easy fix to Mali's woes.
THE ACCIDENTAL COUP
By mid-March, the national mood had been strained for weeks as Mali's army struggled to contain a push by Tuareg-led rebels in the north. Morale-sapping defeats, including one that led to the slaughter of dozens of soldiers, sparked protests in the south, both among civilians and soldiers.
It was one such army protest on March 21 that snowballed faster than anyone expected. Within hours, it morphed into a coup d'etat against incumbent President Amadou Toumani Toure which, while not too surprising, was largely accidental.
"It was a mutiny that developed into a coup d'etat because they realized there was a vacuum," Said Djinnit, head of the United Nations Office for West Africa, told Reuters.
"We all applauded the democratic dispensation in Mali but we now realize that democratic dispensation was very fragile."
With his palace under attack from parts of his own army, Toure fled into hiding. Foreign condemnation was swift and harsh as neighbors imposed trade and diplomatic sanctions and even aired the possibility of returning Toure to power by force.
But the reaction of the street to the largely bloodless coup was less clear cut. Hundreds of civilians unhappy with Toure's rule cheered soldiers on as they seized state television, while pro-coup rallies easily outnumbered anti-coup demonstrations in the days that followed.
Toure's consensus politics, based on local traditions of dialogue, had meant Mali was spared the post-election conflicts elsewhere in the region as he forged wide-ranging alliances that co-opted virtually every mainstream politician.
But while that kept the peace, critics say Mali was robbed of any effective opposition. And while most Malians suffered grinding poverty, a minority was getting rich quickly amid allegations of drug-smuggling, money laundering and corruption.
The politicians tasked with organizing new elections are Dioncounda Traore, the 70-year-old national parliament speaker who has been named caretaker president, and his prime minister Cheick Modibo Diarra - a longtime NASA astrophysicist whose main qualification is political neutrality.
But even if they succeed, grass roots faith in politics is so low that most Malians would not even know who to vote for.
"We don't have any confidence in the politicians. We have accepted Dioncounda to stabilize the country but he is part of this group," said Ibrahim Dumbia said at his market stall selling stationery in the shade of a baobab tree.
"We want a new generation."
SHARIA VS INDEPENDENCE
Forging a generation of politicians takes time - and events in the north show that is something Mali does not have.
In a bitter irony, the leaders of the coup emboldened the very northern rebels against whom they promised tougher action.
MNLA separatists declared the northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu an independent state they now call Azawad. While the secession bid has been shunned abroad, there is little immediate prospect of Malian authorities winning it back.
Potentially worse for about 10 percent of Mali's 15 million population who live in the north are the rising tensions between the MNLA and uneasy companions-in-arms such as Ansar Dine - another Tuareg-led group whose goal is not independence but the imposition of sharia, Islamic law, across the whole country.
Several weeks after their lightning advance, the two groups are both claiming to be in charge yet obliged to live alongside the other. A row between the pair over control over a food store in Gao on Friday nearly resulted in an outbreak of fighting.
"We have to go down to block by block in the towns to work out who is controlling what. It is a very strange co-existence," said a foreign military expert who asked not to be named.
The most northern town of Kidal was first to fall and is a stronghold to Ansar Dine leader Iyad ag Ghali. Yet even here it was forced by the local traditional Tuareg leader to remove its black flag and locals have protested against moves to impose sharia, according to residents.
The strategic garrison town Gao is divided, with the MNLA making it their main base and controlling access but Ansar Dine more visibly present on the streets. Ansar Dine has sought to win over locals by restoring law and order, even setting up a "hotline" for residents in distress.
Local accounts of fighters speaking English and Hausa have fuelled suspicion that Boko Haram, a Nigerian Islamist group that has links with al Qaeda in the zone, has joined the fray. MUJWA, a splinter group from local al Qaeda factions, is also active and says it has kidnapped seven Algerian diplomats.
With local food and medical supplies widely pillaged, a humanitarian crisis is looming. Many aid groups have pulled their staff out of the north and Islamists are only allowing local initiatives such as a "Cri de Coeur" ("Cry from the Heart") aid corridor launched from Bamako last week.
"Apart from "Cri de Coeur", they (residents) have not had any help," said Almady Cisse, who led the convoy of several tonnes of food and medicines up north. "They feel abandoned."
HAWKS AND DOVES
While Mali lost control its north in a matter of days, it could be months - or even longer - before it gets it back.
Its army in tatters, authorities in Bamako have little choice but to enter into a dialogue with the rebels - a move that runs against public opinion in the south where the far-off northern rebels are viewed with frustration and often disdain.
"To negotiate is treason," read the headline of Bamako-based L'Info Matin daily.
As leaders in the capital seek a fix, local counter-rebellion efforts may emerge. In the remote town of Labezanga, on the Niger-Mali border, a Reuters witness said several hundred heavily armed loyalists are gathering with dozens of vehicles.
The men are coming together under the command of Colonel Elhadj Ag Gamou, a Tuareg commander who tricked rebels into believing he had switched sides before fleeing to Niger and announcing he was in fact loyal. He has pledged to retake lost ground and may draw other anti-Tuareg forces but will need greater numbers to dent the rebel alliance.
ECOWAS is looking to send 3,000 soldiers to the country but discussions so far have revealed the deep divisions over what, if anything, can be done.
Niger, whose capital Niamey is just 400 km (250 miles) from Gao, is the most hawkish and wants a U.N. mandate for regional forces to retake the main towns, according to a diplomat briefed on the talks.
Yet others are lukewarm while Algeria, Mali's most powerful neighbor to the north, is firmly against military action. With few armies in ECOWAS having had much experience of desert warfare, confidence in its ability to shake the rebels is low.
As one diplomat observed: "Anyone who thinks an ECOWAS force is a solution is kidding themselves."
(Editing by Mark John and Elizabeth Piper)