By David Lewis and Tiemoko Diallo
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Malian election officials scrambled to distribute voting material for an election on Sunday intended to provide a fresh start to a country divided by a coup and a war in its desert north.
Candidates wound up campaigns promising reconstruction and reconciliation but, underscoring security fears despite a successful French offensive against al Qaeda-linked fighters, an Islamist group threatened to attack polling stations.
Separatist and Islamist rebels swept across the country's desert north last year shortly after soldiers ousted the president, an unprecedented crisis in the former French colony, previously seen as an island of stability in West Africa.
Thousands of French troops halted a rebel advance in January and United Nations peacekeepers are deploying to stabilize the broken nation. A successful vote on Sunday would take the gold-producing country another step towards its recovery.
"We need this election - it is critical," said Abdrahamane Toure, a postal worker who went to the Aminata Diop school in Bamako's Lafiabougou neighborhood to check where he would vote.
"Once we have a legitimate state back, things might start getting better," he added.
In a sign of last-minute preparations, residents were still lining up to collect newly-printed ID cards that they will have to show in order to vote as a truck laden with plastic ballot boxes pulled up at the Bamako school on Saturday.
Authorities also instructed some 6.8 million eligible voters how to find their polling stations by sending SMS messages to designated numbers.
In the run-up to the vote, experts had warned that a rushed election might lead to challenges and further crises.
But election officials say they have distributed 85 percent of the ID cards and a free and fair race in a field of 26 men and one women could take place.
Louis Michel, head of the European Union's election observer mission, said he was "positively surprised" by preparations and that the conditions for the vote were acceptable.
"A month ago, there were a lot of doubts (over the election). But it has come together. Everyone realizes that this interim government has to end as its inherent fragility and uncertainty has been so costly for Mali," said Mary Beth Leonard, the U.S. ambassador to Bamako.
Voting is due to start at 4.00 a.m. ET at 21,000 polling stations across the country, from the bustling, lush riverside capital in the south to the remote desert garrison town of Kidal, which was at the heart of last year's rebellion.
Most of the front-runners are established political figures over the last 20 years of Malian politics so there is little likelihood of a radical overhaul of the country's democracy.
A second round of voting will take place on August 11 if no candidate wins over 50 percent of the vote.
"LOOKING FOR UNITY"
Before last year's collapse, Mali, a poor nation straddling the south of the Sahara, had built up a reputation for stability and become Africa's No. 3 gold producer.
Donors who slashed aid after the coup have promised over 3 billion euros in reconstruction assistance after the election.
The new president will have to oversee peace talks with separatist Tuareg rebels who have agreed to allow the vote to take place in areas they operate in but have yet to lay down their arms.
France is hoping a successful vote will allow it to scale down its military presence in Mali from around 3,000 troops currently. A 12,600-strong U.N. mission is rolling out.
While there have been few counter-attacks by Islamists since they were scattered from their northern strongholds, MUJWA, one of the groups that occupied Mali's north last year, on Saturday threatened to attack polling stations.
"Places of the so-called election will be a target for the strikes of the Mujaahideen (holy strugglers)," Mauritania's Nouakchoute News Agency quoted the group as saying in a statement, a copy of which was obtained by the agency.
The group also warned what it called the Muslims of Mali against taking part in the elections and urged them to stay away.
Election experts said they expect some problems given the rushed preparations but added the key to stability was ensuring no-one were seen aiding one side or the other.
"All we are looking for is unity," Mohamed Kale, imam at Bamako's Grand Mosque, told Reuters after Friday prayers.
"This vote will allow us to find a leader so it has to be a good one. The number of people who take part will give this legitimacy," he added.
(Additional reporting by Sami Aboudi; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)