Bahrain's king said Wednesday that an independent commission will investigate allegations that protesters' rights were violated during the deadly crackdown on anti-government unrest.
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's announcement comes as Sunni rulers are trying to open reconciliation talks with the Shiite-led opposition, months after the regime crushed the protest campaign for greater freedoms.
Some suspect the king's decree to investigate alleged abuses may just be window dressing to exonerate Bahrain's rulers and allow them to continue the crackdown on opposition supporters despite criticism from rights groups and Western allies.
Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and is an important military ally in the Middle East.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner welcomed the king's announcement, saying that forming an independent committee to investigate the deaths surrounding recent protests is a "step in the right direction."
"We hope that the efforts of the investigation committee will help restore confidence and trust as Bahrain moves toward the beginning of a national dialogue," Toner said, calling on all participants in the national dialogue to "engage constructively in an effort to produce reforms that will respond to the legitimate aspirations of the Bahraini people."
The monarch's appeal for dialogue, set to begin on Saturday, got a cool reception from opposition groups. The leaders of the biggest Shiite party, Al Wefaq, have not yet decided whether they will join talks.
It was not clear whether the king's announcement will be enough to draw Wefaq delegates to the talks as the party previously demanded that authorities roll back security measures and halt trials against activists before dialogue begins.
In his speech, the king said Bahrain is committed to reform and respecting human rights. But he accused the protesters of pushing the country into a "state of chaos" with street marches and sit-ins earlier this year.
He said the government will not interfere in the work of the commission that will investigate the "unfortunate events" that took place in February and March. The fact-finding mission will be "completely independent and will consist of international experts," the monarch said, adding that the commission will report on its findings Oct. 30.
At least 31 people have died since February when the country's Shiite majority _ inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East _ started a campaign to end the Sunni minority's hold on power. Four people died in custody.
Hundreds of Shiite opposition supporters, leaders and Shiite professionals such as doctors and lawyers have been arrested or dismissed from state jobs and universities. Forty-eight doctors and nurses who treated injured protesters have also been charged with crimes against the state and are being tried in a special security court.
The U.N. human rights office has spoken out repeatedly about accusations of abuses by Bahraini authorities.
Earlier this month, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed concern about detainees were claimed they were severely beaten while in custody. She also has condemned Bahrain's use of closed-door trials and military prosecutors as violations of "international legal standards."
Washington has encouraged dialogue in the island nation and had urged the monarchy to meet some the opposition's demands. The U.S. has also expressed concern and the use of military-linked security courts against the protesters and the severity of the sentences.
But Washington has taken little action against the monarchy for its harsh crackdown, which was backed up by a Saudi-led military force that came to the aid of Bahraini rulers in March, when martial law was imposed to quell dissent.