Zimbabwe's feuding political leaders met face-to-face on Monday to sign an agreement laying out terms for negotiations to wrest their land out of political chaos.

While the accord itself was a modest step in light of Zimbabwe's collapse and the many hurdles to a final resolution, the sight of President Robert Mugabe in the same room as his nemesis, Morgan Tsvangirai, was a striking departure from the political bloodletting of recent months and the deep antipathy between the two men. They even shook hands.

"You can all imagine what an occasion it is for the leader of the ruling party and the leader of the winning party to be sitting to discuss" a settlement, said a smiling Tsvangirai, who has survived three assassination attempts and says the government stole the presidential elections from him in March.

Even Mugabe, who has sworn that "only God" could remove him as president and ridiculed the opposition leader as a lackey of Zimbabwe's former colonial masters, spoke in unusually conciliatory tones. "We sit here in order for us to chart a new way, a new way of political interaction," he said.

The ceremony in a Harare hotel was a diplomatic coup for Thabo Mbeki, the president of neighboring South Africa who has labored for months as a mediator, rejecting international criticism that he favored Mugabe and stood by as the opposition endured a broad campaign of violence against it.

But whether the opening of negotiations was a staged showing of cooperation under international pressure, a sign of the opposition's weakness or a real path toward peace remained unclear. The opposition said it got much of what it demanded before engaging in substantive talks: a commitment to end political violence and the participation of international bodies in the mediation process.

But given Mugabe's unbridled exercise of power during the election season, he enters the negotiations with the overwhelming upper hand, analysts said. Few expected him to yield any significant ground now.

The opposition was also skeptical.

"We are dealing with a rogue leader who does not respect his own rules, nor does he even respect his own signature," said Thabitha Khumalo, deputy spokesperson for the opposition.

In the agreement, which was also signed by a separate opposition faction, the sides pledged to seek a new government of national unity and a new constitution. In the meantime, they agreed "to eliminate all forms of political violence."

Finally, the sides agreed on a tight timeline for the discussions: two weeks.

But the thorniest questions remain. The framework says nothing about who would lead the new government, or how power would be divided.