The UN Security Council has unanimously approved sending an African-led military force to help wrench northern Mali from Islamist militants.
A Security Council resolution on Thursday gave the force a one-year mandate to use "all necessary measures" to help Mali's government take back territory from "terrorist, extremist and armed groups".
But the 15-member council said military force could be used only after political efforts had been exhausted, and insisted that the military plans needed to be refined and approved before any offensive began.
West African nations say they have 3,300 troops ready to go to Mali to help rebuild the country's army and support a military operation, which is not expected to start before September next year.
Tuareg rebels and other separatists and al-Qaeda linked groups took advantage of a coup in Mali in March to seize a swathe of territory where the militants have imposed a brutal form of Islamic law.
Mali's foreign minister, Tieman Coulibaly, welcomed the resolution as "an historic step" in the battle against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies.
France drew up the resolution after weeks of talks with the United States, which had expressed doubts that the proposed Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) force would be tough enough for the desert battle against the militants.
The US finally co-sponsored the resolution on Thursday and was expected to become a major backer of the new force. France and the United States are already working with the Malian army.
The resolution orders political efforts to draw the Tuareg rebels into a coalition against the Islamists. In parallel European nations and the international force, the African-led international support mission in Mali (Afisma), will train Mali's weakened army.
A move towards an offensive will come in a second phase.
The resolution says "military planning will need to be further refined" and sets down benchmarks for political progress and military preparations that will have to be met before a final onslaught against the Islamists is approved.
It said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Ecowas, the African Union and other states involved would have to secure "the council's satisfaction with the planned military offensive operation" before hostilities could start.
"Nobody is ignoring the complexity of the task that awaits the international community to restore the territorial integrity of Mali and to end the terrorist activities in the north of the country," said France's UN ambassador, Gerard Araud.