Former United Nations (UN) chief Kofi Annan hopes Kenya's bitterly divided leaders will sign a deal next week after taking the "last difficult and frightening step" toward a power-sharing government.
Annan said on Friday at the end of a third week of tough negotiations that a deal was "very close" to end weeks of turmoil that have left more than 1,000 people dead since the disputed December 27 presidential election.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives on Monday in Nairobi to shore up Annan's effort to negotiate a deal between President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga on the makeup of a new government.
In meetings with the two leaders, Rice has been asked by US President George W Bush to deliver a message that "there must be a full return to democracy" in Kenya.
Bush arrived in Benin on Saturday, his first stop on his Africa tour, before traveling to Tanzania, Kenya's neighbour which currently holds the presidency of the African Union. He then goes to Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia.
"We are very close. We are moving steady," Annan said on Friday in Nairobi.
"We are on the water's edge and the last difficult and frightening step, as difficult as it is, will be taken."
Annan said the rival parties had agreed to a broad reform agenda to review the constitution, improve electoral laws, bolster human rights, among other measures, to "address the root causes of the crisis."
But he added that "the only outstanding issue" remained the makeup of a coalition government. The parties were consulting with their leaders before sitting down again with Annan on Tuesday.
"In summary, we have defined the reform agenda for a new government and are now discussing the how and the mechanisms required for their implementation," said Annan.
Kenya descended into crisis when Kibaki, 76, was declared the winner of the presidential vote, which opposition leader Odinga, 63, maintains was rigged. Independent observers also found flaws in the vote count.
According to the Kenyan Red Cross, more than 1,000 people have died in rioting, tribal clashes and police raids since the vote and 300,000 people have been uprooted, shattering Kenya's image as one of Africa's most stable countries.
During talks this week at a secluded safari lodge in southern Kenya, Kibaki's camp agreed to allow opposition members into government, but only under the strong executive leadership of the president, said a government official.
The opposition has pushed for the appointment of Odinga as prime minister, with full powers as head of government.
Annan is to meet Kibaki and Odinga on Monday to "appeal to them to give instructions to their negotiators to really have the courage and make a deal."
In an apparent swipe at the government, he said there were "calculations" made that "by dragging it out I will be frustrated and will leave."
"I will stay as long as it takes to get the process at an irreversible point," he said. This would be achieved when "a new government is established".
The sides also agreed to set up an independent commission no later than March 15 that will investigate "all aspects" of the disputed elections and present a report in three to six months, said Annan.
The rival leaders have been under heavy pressure from the United States and Britain which have threatened visa bans, an assets freeze and other sanctions.
"There must be an immediate halt to violence, there must be justice for the victims of abuse, and there must be a full return to democracy," Bush said last week.
Former colonial power Britain angered Kibaki's camp when High Commissioner Adam Wood said London did not recognise the government "as presently constituted."
The violence left many Kenyans traumatized from seeing their countrymen hacked to death by machete-wielding mobs, burnt in churches where they had sought refuge and driven off their land.
The turmoil has laid bare tribal rivalries as well as simmering resentment over land issues and wealth disparities in Kenya. (AFP)
Kenya deal 'very close': Annan