Showdown with Tuareg rebels possible as imposition of Sharia sets up confrontation with former coup allies who want a secular state.
Mali's Islamists flex their muscles
BAMAKO // In one town in northern Mali a man has been whipped for drinking alcohol. In another, pictures of unveiled women have been torn down. In a third, traditional music is no longer heard in the streets.
While government soldiers were fighting each other for control of the capital in Mali's south-west corner, Islamist fighters were asserting control over the Texas-sized northern half of the country. The Islamists, some of whom are foreigners, are imposing Sharia, setting up a possible showdown with Tuareg nationalist rebels who say they want a secular state and who seized northern Mali in March alongside the Islamists. The two groups were once allies might soon be turning their guns on each other.
Residents of the three biggest towns in the north say the Islamist fighters seem to be elbowing aside the Tuareg nationalists and are stronger on the ground.
In the fabled city of Timbuktu, whose winding alleyways lined with mud homes fill with sand blown in from the Sahara, pictures of unveiled women have either been torn down or covered over with black paint, according to El Hadj Baba Haidara, a member of the Malian parliament for the city. The Islamists have also cut the signal for national TV broadcasts to the city because they consider the women not properly covered and don't approve of the music the station plays, Mr Haidara said.
"No one came come here and tell us how to practice Islam," Mr Haidara said. "Timbuktu has been Islamic since the 12th century and we have our own way of doing things."
Down the road from one of Timbuktu's mosques, whose wooden doors are decorated with metal crescents and stars, Islamists have made their base at a bank. A sign at the entrance says "Islamic Police" in Arabic and French. Residents have been given a phone number to report serious crimes and other emergencies, but wide-scale patrols haven't been deployed to enforce Sharia, at least not yet.
But punishments are being delivered.
Last Monday in the city of Gao, two men caught smoking hashish were given 30 lashes in front of the police station, according to Hama dada Toure, a teacher in Gao. One man who had allegedly beaten his pregnant wife was given 10 lashes and ordered to pay her.
Mr Toure said a flexible tree branch is used in the whippings, the blows delivered with less than full force. The Islamists make the person being punished say "Allahu Akbar. La ilaha illa Allah" - meaning "God is great. There is no God but God" - each time the branch strikes them.
The last to be punished that day in Gao were two men had been fighting. One man had been cut in the fight and the other was told that when the injured man recovered he would be able to inflict the exact same cut on his enemy.
In Kidal, one of the three major towns in Mali's north, residents say that the Islamists have banned traditional Tuareg festivities where drums are played all afternoon and into the night.
"Tuareg culture is done for here," mourned Jean Pierre Tita, a resident of the town. "It's Islamic culture that is going to take over now."
Mr Tita said the Islamists have been preaching on the streets, as well as in mosques and at funerals.
One of the groups that is imposing Sharia, Ansar Dine - Arabic for Supporters of Islam - was formed at the end of last year and joined the Tuareg rebel group in chasing government forces out of the north a month ago. The Tuareg rebels declared independence for north Mali, but Ansar Dine now says that it is against north Mali becoming independent.
Western diplomats in Bamako, the capital, say Ansar Dine has links with an even more hard-line militant Islamic group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has been responsible for kidnappings of Europeans and attacks on government forces in Mali and beyond. Senior leaders from AQIM have been seen openly in towns in north Mali since Ansar Dine gained some control of them.
Diplomats say that fighters sometimes move between the two groups.
Islamist fighters from other countries have been descending on northern Mali in the chaotic aftermath of the military coup in the capital in March that deposed the president. The vast area has become a potential haven for terrorists in a part of the Sahara bristling with heavy weapons looted from Libya.
Witnesses in northern Mali and those who have fled to neighbouring Niger have said they have seen fighters from Algeria, Mauritania and Nigeria.