By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS, Sept 17 (Reuters) - West Africa's regional body is gearing up for a tough fight to help Mali's government forces reclaim the north of the country from Islamist militants, telling the U.N. Security Council on Monday it needs major combat assets, including fighter jets.
Mali descended into chaos in March when soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to seize nearly two-thirds of the country. But Islamist groups, some allied with al Qaeda, then hijacked the rebellion in the north to impose sharia law.
"Rebel and terrorist groups in the north of Mali have taken advantage of the near political paralysis in Bamako to consolidate their positions," Ivory Coast's U.N. Ambassador Youssoufou Bamba told the U.N. Security Council.
Mali's interim leader, Dioncounda Traore, earlier this month made a formal request to the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for military assistance to help free the country's north.
Bamba, speaking on behalf of ECOWAS, said the regional body had mapped out a three-phase operation to reclaim northern Mali, but Traore only requested troops be deployed for the last phase.
"The request for military deployment only for Phase 3 can hardly be fulfilled, because it will be extremely difficult and strategically unwise to deploy troops in the north of the country without a coordinating center in Bamako," Bamba said.
"Phase 3 will be jointly planned between the ECOWAS standby Force Headquarters and Malian Defence and Security Forces," he said. "This phase requires a lot of combat assets, including fighter jets for the conduct of the operations. These air assets may be provided by ECOWAS or development partners."
ECOWAS and the African Union will now need to seek a U.N. Security Council mandate to send in troops. In June, the council asked them to clearly spell out the objectives of such an operation and how it would be carried out.
"The security and humanitarian situation in the north of Mali is getting worse and continues to pose a major threat to regional and international peace and security," Bamba said.
Security Council diplomats have privately expressed skepticism about ECOWAS' current plans, saying the West Africans need a more detailed strategy if any future military intervention in Mali is to succeed.
ECOWAS has intervened militarily in past African conflicts, including the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The conflict in Mali has also exacerbated a deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in the turbulent Sahel region - a belt of land spanning nearly a dozen of the world's poorest countries on the southern rim of the Sahara - where millions are on the brink of starvation due to drought.
"The long porous borders of the Sahel region present a significant security challenge because they facilitate the activities of transnational criminal and terrorist groups, especially in remote and poorly administered regions," U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman told the Security Council.
A high-level meeting on the situation in the Sahel is due to be held later this month during the U.N. General Assembly. (Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Todd Eastham)