BAGHDAD, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Violent attacks across Syria did not cease in the lead-up last week to peace talks in Geneva -- and nor had they by the intended start. In Iraq, meanwhile, the Baghdad government and its international backers continued putting pressure on the Islamic State and training local forces in preparation for the anticipated attack on Mosul.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings at a Shia shrine south of Damascus on Sunday, just as delegates from the Syrian government and opposition gathered in Geneva for United Nations-sponsored talks.
At least 50 people were killed in the blasts, which occurred at the Sayyida Zeinab shrine.
The BBC quoted European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini as saying the attack was "clearly aimed to disrupt the attempts to start a political process."
As of Sunday, the talks had yet to begin -- the main opposition group, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, demanded the government meet key humanitarian demands -- and indeed, fighting continued across Syria.
Syrian state news reported government forces on Sunday attacked IS and other rebel groups throughout the country, capturing two villages in the Aleppo and Latakia provinces.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group monitoring Syria's conflict, said Sunday government troops, backed by Russian officers, continued battling rebel forces, including al-Qaida's Nusra Front, in the Jabal al-Akrad mountains in northern Latakia, where forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have made gains against rebels in recent weeks.
The Syrian military has been recapturing territory across Syria, particularly in the country's northwestern provinces of Latakia and Aleppo, since Russia began conducting airstrikes on behalf of pro-Assad forces last September.
The Syrian military also battled IS forces Sunday in Homs province, including near the ancient ruins of Palmyra, and conducted airstrikes in Daraa province near the strategic crossroads in the town of Shiekh Miskeen -- which fell to regime troops the previous Tuesday.
A majority of the reported clashes with the Syrian military appeared to be among forces with IS and Nusra Front -- groups that, along with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, were not invited to attend the Geneva talks.
IS and Nusra Front are themselves rivals and were reported to be clashing Sunday in Qalamoun, in the Reef Dimashq province northeast of Damascus.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition effort in Syria -- which is operating independently of Russia and pro-Assad forces -- said a U.S.-backed group of Kurdish, Assyrian and Arab rebels, known collectively as the Syrian Democratic Forces, were maneuvering against IS militants in positions near Raqqa, the militants' self-declared capital.
On Friday, U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said the SDF was advancing around Raqqa near the Tishreen Dam to the west and Hawl to the east. The day prior, SOHR reported IS militants used missiles to target SDF positions north of Raqqa near the town of Ain Issa.
The Syrian military appears content moving forward with offensive operations, strengthening its position for the Geneva talks.
The capture of Sheikh Miskeen gives the government control of a strategically important intersection leading toward Damascus to the north, the city of Daraa to the south, and toward rebel positions east and west of the Daraa province.
Continued gains in Latakia province, meanwhile, could allow pro-Assad forces to threaten rebel supply lines from Turkey and recapture the neighboring Idlib province, which was overrun by a coalition of rebel groups last April.
Opposition negotiators have refused to engage with Damascus unless it meets certain preconditions -- namely the release of political prisoners and the opening of humanitarian corridors in areas where Syria's civilian populace is being subjected to siege tactics. A possible cease-fire is also on the table.
The HNC agreed late Friday to join the Geneva conference after being put under pressure by Saudi Arabia and the United States. This led Syrian government envoy Bashar al-Jaafari to say the opposition was not serious about the talks.
Jaafari also said the Sayyida Zeinab shrine attack confirmed the opposition's connection to terrorism, despite the fact that IS, which was absent from the talks -- and is the sworn enemy of most of Syria's rebel groups -- claimed the twin bombings.
Still, Jaafari reportedly said the Syrian government was considering certain humanitarian measures, including cease-fires, humanitarian corridors and prisoner releases.
The Kurdish PYD, despite receiving endorsements of participation from Moscow, Damascus and Washington, are still absent from the Geneva talks since Turkey -- a NATO ally of the United States and a member of the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition -- classifies the Syrian Kurds as a terrorist group.
This presents challenges to the U.S. strategy against IS in Syria, which calls for groups such as the SDF -- relying heavily on Kurdish forces -- to cordon off the militants' capital city of Raqqa.
"Our focus on Raqqa really is to isolate through fires," Col. Warren said Friday. "We're trying to isolate them to make their lives harder, to make it more difficult for them to move things in and out of the city, and we're trying to degrade them, chip away at their strength and their combat power."
Warren said IS forces were most vulnerable to coalition airstrikes when they exposed themselves by maneuvering in response to movements by friendly groups such as the SDF.
He added that while Russia's air campaign had helped the Syrian government reduce IS forces "in some cases," it had mainly helped Assad "push back moderate Syrian opposition forces."
Iraqi security forces continued clearing IS fighters from the Anbar province, on Sunday killing nine of the militants, including a sniper, in the Husaiba area east of Ramadi. Police also disarmed several improvised explosive devices and dismantled six IS defensive positions, officials told IraqiNews.com. On Wednesday, police reportedly killed 35 IS fighters during raids in the same area.
On Friday, Col. Warren confirmed ground operations in Iraq throughout the week had been focused on clearing IS stragglers in and around Ramadi. Warren said Iraqi security forces were also patrolling the oil town of Baiji and reinforcing the city of Sinjar, which Kurdish Peshmerga forces captured from IS last November.
Iraqi forces on Saturday were reported to be advancing into Ramadi's eastern al-Sajariyah neighborhood from two sides. Four days prior, at least 55 Iraqi troops were killed in two separate suicide car bombings in northern Ramadi and al-Baghdadi, to the west.
On Thursday, IS published photos of the suicide bombers in the al-Baghdadi attack, which reportedly killed two senior military officers, a local police chief and at least six members of the Hashid Shaabi, an Iran-supported umbrella group of Shia militias.
Elsewhere in Anbar province, soldiers from the Iraqi army's 7th Brigade killed at least six IS fighters who attacked their positions in the Albu Hayat area of Haditha on Sunday.
Iraqi military officials on Wednesday said troops of the Iraqi 1st Brigade killed 35 attacking IS militants near Lake Tharthar, and soldiers with the 51st Brigade, supported by Hashid Shaabi, killed another 14 near the village of Saqalawiya.
On Tuesday, security forces recovered more than 40 bodies, including those of women and children, in a mass grave in central Ramadi. Iraqi forces recaptured the city, which is the capital of Anbar province, after it was seized by IS in May 2015. Similar mass graves were discovered after pro-government forces recaptured the IS-held cities of Sinjar and Tikrit last year.
In the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, bomb attacks caused dozens of casualties throughout the week. On Sunday, Iraq's interior ministry said two people were killed in an explosion near a cafe in the Zaafaraniya district, to the south, and another two were killed in a similar attack at a market in the Sabaa al-Bour area, to the north. More than a dozen people were injured in both blasts.
However, security forces managed to disarm another explosive device the same day in the al-Fadl neighborhood in central Baghdad.
The Sunday bombings came three days after the ministry said two people were killed and nine others injured in a bomb blast in the Yusufiyah district, south of the capital, and six days after Iraqi security forces said they had disarmed 73 IEDs and killed 42 militants during the prior 24 hours of operations across the wider Baghdad province.
Meanwhile, on Sunday in the Saladin province, a Hashid Shaabi official told IraqiNews.com that IS fighters executed 10 people accused of collaborating with security forces in the Sharqat district. The executions, which reportedly followed a mock trial, came six days after Iraq's interior ministry said local youths from the district had killed 15 IS fighters during a raid on one of the militants' checkpoints.
The Iraqi government and its allies in the U.S.-led coalition are aiming to clear remaining IS fighters from areas around Ramadi and the wider Anbar province while consolidating holdings in other regions of Iraq, such as the Saladin and Nineveh provinces.
The main objective, however, is Mosul. Coalition officials say Iraqi forces are currently being trained to recapture the IS-held city, which is the capital of Nineveh province.
"We believe that all the forces we've already trained and run through Ramadi, for example, are certainly capable of moving to Mosul," Col. Warren said Friday. "But we [decided to] ... run them through another cycle of training. Are they trained? Yes. Could they go to Mosul now? Yes. But we would prefer to give them additional training before they go."
Warren said coalition teams have trained at least 20,000 Iraqi police and Sunni tribal fighters and are looking to build a total of 10 brigades. The course lasts up to eight weeks on average, with extra time added for specialty schools.
Officials with U.S. Central Command have asserted they do not work with the Hashid Shaabi militias, many of which receive training and support from Iran.
The Shia militias have in the past proved effective fighters in places such as Tikrit but have been blamed for reprisal attacks against Iraq's Sunni Arab population. Kurdish forces have come under similar scrutiny.
Nonetheless, both the Hashid Shaabi and Peshmerga are likely to play key roles in the fight ahead. The Peshmerga halted the IS advance into northern Iraq after more than 30,000 U.S.-armed and trained Iraqi soldiers retreated from a small force of IS militants attacking Mosul in 2014. As well, the Hashid Shaabi were reported to be more motivated and capable than Iraqi regulars during the March battle for Tikrit.
On Sunday, an official with the Hashid Shaabi said the group would be used in an upcoming operation to clear IS fighters from the Bashir area of the southern Kirkuk province.