HARARE Zimbabwean leaders Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai said on Thursday they had resolved disputes over a proposed new constitution and would soon call a referendum on the charter, a key step before elections due this year.
Mugabe - president since independence in 1980 - and Prime Minister Tsvangirai are bitter rivals but formed a coalition government after disputed elections in 2008, with the tabling of a new constitution a top priority before fresh elections.
The new constitution had looked in doubt last year when Mugabe's ZANU-PF party tried to overhaul curbs on presidential powers and a strengthening of parliament. The draft also proposes devolving power to provincial councils.
The coalition leaders met for nearly four hours at Mugabe's official residence to clear hurdles on the path to a new charter.
"Sure there will still be some T's to cross and I's to dot, but we are generally agreed and the finalization of the draft is now being made," Mugabe said, flanked by Tsvangirai and leaders of a smaller faction of his MDC party.
Mugabe said a draft would now be produced to be put up for a referendum. "We will be stipulating our road map and stating when a referendum will be held and that will dictate also when our elections will be held," he said.
The veteran ruler refused to go into details of how the constitutional disputes had been resolved. "Along the way, there are various ideas given and you pit this idea against the other and you... find a middle course and compromise," Mugabe said.
Tsvangirai confirmed the deal, saying the end of the deadlock on the constitution was "a defining moment."
Funding problems and constant bickering between the coalition parties have delayed the adoption of a new constitution, initially scheduled to be completed in 2010.
Mugabe has previously threatened to call a vote under the current constitution but has been held back by regional leaders eager to avoid a repeat of the violent and disputed 2008 polls.
Despite concerns over his health and age, ZANU-PF endorsed the 88-year-old Mugabe as its candidate for presidential and parliamentary elections expected before the end of the year.
Mugabe and ZANU-PF are facing a stiff challenge from the MDC, which promises to breathe fresh life into an economy that shrank by an estimated 40 percent from 2000 to 2010 due largely to Mugabe's seizure of white-owned commercial farms.
(Reporting by Nelson Banya; Editing by Ed Cropley/Mark Heinrich)