- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008

HARARE, Zimbabwe | President Robert Mugabe has relaxed his iron hold on Zimbabwe for the first time in nearly three decades of one-man rule, forced by escalating economic chaos into signing a power-sharing deal Monday with his bitter political rivals.

Thousands of supporters of the rival parties threw stones at each other outside the convention center where the signing ceremony took place. Police fired warning shots and set dogs on the crowd but several hundred broke through the gates onto the sprawling grounds. The crowd calmed down after the initial clashes and cheered as the leaders left.

Mr. Mugabe, main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, leader of a faction that broke away from Mr. Tsvangirai’s party, all pledged with passion to make the deal work. But long-simmering differences between the two sides plus the nation’s worsening economic collapse are expected to put the power-sharing deal under intense pressure.

Western nations, whose aid and investment could mean the difference between the success or failure of the unity experiment, reacted cautiously. Millions of dollars in aid are expected if Mr. Mugabe proves sincere about sharing power and working to end Zimbabwe’s economic and political crisis.

The European Union welcomed the deal but officials said it was still too early to ease sanctions against Mr. Mugabe. The United States expressed cautious optimism.

Mr. Mugabe, 84, has been in power since independence from Britain in 1980 and went from being praised as a liberator to being vilified as an autocrat. He and Mr. Tsvangirai, 56, have been enemies for a decade. Mr. Tsvangirai has been jailed, beaten, tortured and tried for treason - charges that were dismissed in court.

The deal is the result of more than two months of difficult negotiations mediated by South African President Thabo Mbeki.

Mr. Mbeki said Mr. Mugabe would remain president, Mr. Tsvangirai would be prime minister and Mr. Mutambara deputy prime minister.

The first 30 pages of the 80-page deal were made public after the deal was signed.

The deal lays out a complicated arrangement, with Mr. Mugabe chairing the Cabinet and Mr. Tsvangirai heading a new Council of Ministers responsible for forming government policies. Mr. Tsvangirai is deputy chairman of the Cabinet under Mr. Mugabe.

The agreement sets out a timetable for drafting a new constitution that would include input from civic groups. The consultation process is to begin within a month and a referendum on the constitution is slated to be held within two years.

In a nationally televised speech after signing the agreement, Mr. Tsvangirai said the government’s first priority should be addressing hunger.

The world’s highest inflation and a meager harvest this year have made it difficult for many Zimbabweans to feed themselves in what was once the region’s breadbasket.

Mr. Mugabe, in a speech that was often combative, again accused Britain and the United States of wanting a regime change in Zimbabwe and he sneered at the democratic process.

“This thing called democracy is a problem. It’s a difficult proposition because always the opposition will want much more than what it deserves,” he said.

Critics have linked Zimbabwe’s economic decline to Mr. Mugabe’s orders in 2000 that farms be seized from whites and handed over to poor blacks. Many of the farms ended up in the hands of Mugabe loyalists, and the economy’s agricultural base was disrupted. The deal describes the seizure of the farms as irreversible and says Britain should compensate those whose land was taken.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that the United States has not seen the full agreement but has been briefed by Mr. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change.

Mr. McCormack said that from what U.S. officials have been told, “we would welcome this agreement.”

In the March presidential election, Mr. Tsvangirai won the most votes, but not enough to avoid a runoff against Mr. Mugabe. An onslaught of state-sponsored violence against Mr. Tsvangirai’s supporters prompted him to drop out of the presidential runoff. Thus, Mr. Mugabe was declared the overwhelming winner of the second vote widely denounced as a sham.

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