By Tim Cocks and Ange Aboa
YAMOUSSOUKRO (Reuters) - Alassane Ouattara was to be inaugurated as president of Ivory Coast on Saturday, in a ceremony most Ivorians hope will put a decade of conflict and instability behind them and mend a once prosperous economy.
The ceremony is to be attended by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose troops helped end an impasse after a disputed election, and several heads of state and dignitaries in the former French colony's largely ceremonial capital Yamoussoukro.
Ouattara was declared winner of a U.N.-certified election last November billed as a chance to reunite the fertile, cocoa-growing West African nation, after rebels seized its northern half in late 2002.
Instead, the country lurched back into civil war when incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down -- and used troops, paramilitaries, violent youth militias and Liberian mercenaries to entrench his position and crush dissent.
The impasse ended when pro-Ouattara rebels backed by the French military raided Gbagbo's compound at the height of the fighting and seized him from his blast-proof bunker.
"It's important to be here in Ivory Coast, at the side of President Ouattara, for democracy and for Africa," Sarkozy said, speaking to reporters.
"You've seen that everybody has said, 'Thank you, Sarko'," interjected Ouattara, as the two presidents walked to an official welcoming ceremony.
At least 3,000 people were killed and more than a million displaced in the power struggle, in which cocoa exports ground to a halt, banks shut and shops were ransacked by militiamen.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, en route to take part in the inauguration, said the international community should support Ouattara and send a strong message that the will of the people should be respected.
"A democratically elected person should be the one to lead the country based on the will of the people. This is what we have learned, this is what we have to send out," Ban said at a meeting with Ghana's president John Atta Mills in Accra on Saturday.
U.N. tanks lined the main avenues of the city amid high security for the arrival of about 20 heads of state and dignitaries.
Hundreds of soldiers practiced marching to a brass band late on Friday outside a shiny reception center in Yamoussoukro, a city of wide boulevards carved out of the jungle by independence leader Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who also adorned what was once his home village with the world's biggest Catholic cathedral.
Ouattara faces the task of reuniting a bitterly divided country and getting its wrecked economy back on track -- and Ivorians are keen to move forward after years of stalemate.
"What has happened, has happened. We don't want to look back anymore -- we want to look straight ahead," said Youssouf Toure, an electrician, as he waited outside the ceremony grounds.
"This crisis is finished. We can forget it, we can forgive. President Ouattara has said we need to forgive. Then we can start to get back what we lost."
Ban said that although the Ivorian crisis was over, the United Nations and the international community still had challenges to deal with.
"There are serious challenges like national reconciliation, restoration of peace, and humanitarian affairs as well as accountability questions and impunity issues," he said.
Gbagbo is under house arrest in Ivory Coast's north and Ouattara wants him tried for human rights abuses during the conflict, but he also wants a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission -- two aims which may conflict.
The International Criminal Court said this month Ouattara had asked it to investigate all allegations of serious abuses during the post-election crisis. Ouattara's forces are also accused of abuses, such as looting, rape and killing civilians.
(Additional reporting by Yann Le Guernigou and Hereward Holland in Accra; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Alison Williams)