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Malian leaders have placed as a primary condition that the MNLA lay down its arms. The MNLA has listed several deal-breaker conditions: the withdrawal of the Malian army from the Azawad region, which encompasses the towns of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal; a U.N. recognition of Azawad’s special status; the release of all prisoners in Azawad; and full autonomy.

“If negotiations fail, the MNLA will lose, since the Malian army has been trained and re-armed. Today, they are stronger than before the MNLA joined with the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamists last year,” Mr. Samake said.

France has promised to keep several thousand troops before the elections. The United Nations has provided 6,000 peacekeepers to assist with security.

Reconciliation with the Tuareg separatists is paramount if Mali’s next government is to succeed.

In addition, the Malian diaspora, living in refugee camps in neighboring countries, must be included in the election process — or the outcome will be less than fair and representative of all the country’s ethnic groups.

John Price is a former U.S. ambassador to Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles islands. He currently serves as a resident scholar at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. He is the author of “When the White House Calls,” and regularly writes commentaries on Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.