* Unanimous vote on French draft possible - envoys
* No push to retake north Mali seen before September
* Draft places caveats on authorization of force
By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 20 (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council plans to vote on Thursday on a French-drafted resolution authorizing a military mission to retake northern Mali from Islamist rebels after the United States and France overcame disagreements on the issue, envoys said.
The 15-nation council will meet at 3:15 p.m. EST (2015 GMT) to consider the draft resolution, the U.N. press office said.
U.S. diplomats had voiced skepticism over previous versions of the French draft calling for approval of an African Union (AU) force that would seek to oust al Qaeda-linked insurgents who seized vast swathes of the African country last March.
But council diplomats said on condition of anonymity that Washington had reached a compromise with Paris and would vote in favor of the draft, which could be adopted unanimously.
The draft resolution, obtained by Reuters, would have the council authorize an African intervention force, to be known as AFISMA, to take "all necessary measures, in compliance with applicable international humanitarian law and human rights law."
The phrase "all necessary measures" is diplomatic code for military force. AFISMA is expected to have up to 3,300 troops.
It also authorizes the 27-nation European Union and other U.N. member states to train Malian security forces, who will receive the support of AFISMA "in recovering the areas in the north of its territory under the control of terrorist, extremist and armed groups."
The French text leaves open the question of how the international force will be funded. Ban has recommended against straight U.N. funding for the operation, suggesting instead that it be financed through voluntary contributions.
The voluntary approach appeals to neither France nor the AU. The draft calls on Ban to submit a report to the council on funding options.
U.N. officials say Ban dislikes the idea of the United Nations providing direct financial and logistical support for the initial operation to dislodge al Qaeda from northern Mali because it will be a messy fight, with a goal of killing as many militants as possible.
"There could be serious human rights questions raised and I'm not sure it's a good idea for the U.N. to be directly involved in that," a diplomat told Reuters.
POLITICAL DEAL NEEDED
The fall of Mali's north to Islamist groups, including al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM, has created a haven for militants and international organized crime groups in West Africa, stirring fears of attacks in Europe.
The draft would also set key "benchmarks" for Mali, including a political agreement and verified training - including human rights training - and operational readiness of the battered Malian army and the African intervention force.
The political track would have to include a deal between the Malian government and the separatist Tuaregs and Ansar Dine, diplomats said. The text calls for the AU and U.N. chief Ban to report to the Security Council on the readiness and deployment of AFISMA prior to the commencement of any military operations.
"The benchmarks are caveats to make sure AFISMA and the Malian army are really up to the task," an envoy said.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous has said operations in northern Mali were unlikely to begin before September 2013.
U.N. diplomats and officials say there has been progress on the political front. The Tuareg separatist MNLA, which launched the northern uprising, and Ansar Dine, a local Islamist group, have agreed to work on a negotiated solution with Malian officials.
Once viewed as an example of democratic progress in Africa, Mali was plunged into chaos in March by a coup that toppled the president and left a power vacuum that was quickly exploited by rebels to seize the country's desert north.
Former colonial master France, which has several citizens held hostage in the Sahara by al Qaeda-linked groups, is pushing for a swift war. Washington, which spent years working with Mali's army, advocates a more cautious approach, but would also like al Qaeda removed from the country as soon as possible.
One of the issues the French and U.S. delegations disagreed about was Washington's belief that Malian troops and forces from the West African regional group ECOWAS would not be up to the fight against battle-hardened AQIM militants, diplomats said.
The Americans believe non-ECOWAS countries with forces accustomed to desert fighting like Chad and Mauritania should lead the initial combat operations in northern Mali. (Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Vicki Allen)