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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An Iran-aligned Iraqi militia group on Tuesday denied any role in recent rocket attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq, but said an attack against Saudi Arabia last month was justified.

It is a rare direct denial and the first time the Kataib Hezbollah group, one of the Iraqi factions closest to Iran, has commented on the most serious incident this year, a rocket attack in Erbil on Feb.

15 that killed a contractor working with U.S.-led forces.

The attacks over the past 10 days are an escalation against U.S. sites in Iraq at a time when Washington and Tehran are looking for a way to return to the nuclear deal abandoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Kataib Hezbollah, the most high-profile Iran-backed militia in Iraq, does not usually comment on specific attacks.

Its direct denial of actions against U.S. interests while Washington says it is still determining who carried out the Erbil attack is a sign that Iran and its allies wish to avoid an escalation that could bring a tough U.S. response.

Some Western and Iraqi officials say the attacks, often claimed by little-known groups, are being carried out by militants with links to Kataib Hezbollah as a way for Iranian allies to harass U.S. forces without being held accountable.

"We absolutely did not target Erbil or the Green Zone and have no knowledge of the group that did," Kataib Hezbollah spokesman Mohammed Mohi told Reuters.

In the Feb. 15 attack, rockets hit the U.S. military base housed at Erbil International Airport in the Kurdish-run region killing one non-American contractor. Another salvo struck a base hosting U.S. forces north of Baghdad days later hurting at least one contractor.

Rockets hit Baghdad's Green Zone on Monday which houses the U.S. embassy and other diplomatic missions.

Mohi, whose group demands a withdrawal of 2,500 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and opposes Western influence there, said those who carried out the attacks wanted Washington to harden its stance on Iran or target Iraqi militia.

He said a chance must be given for a U.S.-Iranian detente, which could result in U.S. troops leaving the country.

Tensions have been high in Iraq and the wider region since the U.S. killing of Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah senior leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad in January 2020 sparked fears of a full regional war.

Washington's Gulf Arab ally Riyadh has been increasingly targeted in the past year, including two aerial assaults in the past weeks.

Some Western and regional officials have said one of those, on Jan. 23, which Saudi Arabia said it thwarted, appeared to be launched from Iraqi soil for the first time. Iraqi security officials have said they have no evidence it was launched from Iraq.

Mohi did not comment on whether Kataib Hezbollah had any links with the group that claimed the attack, Alwiyat Alwaad Alhaqq.

"We have not claimed it ... but we do say that people in the region who have suffered from Saudi (policy) have the right to retaliate," he said, responding to a question about whether Kataib Hezbollah was involved.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Alison Williams)

Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.

Tags: Iran, United States, Iraq, Middle East, Saudi Arabia

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Kurtis Gabriel earns kudos for scrap with Ryan Reaves: Im here to take the pressure off

Seemingly from the moment he signed with San Jose Sharks in November, winger Kurtis Gabriel had waited for an opportunity to go toe-to-toe with Vegas Golden Knights tough guy Ryan Reaves.

It didn’t happen in the initial meeting between the Sharks and Golden Knights on Feb. 13 when Gabriel was inserted into the lineup for the first time this season. So during pregame warmups Friday at SAP Center, Gabriel, in his second appearance, made sure he got a chance to speak with Reaves face-to-face.

The two had what appeared from a distance to be a civil, matter-of-fact conversation.

“I basically just had to earn his attention enough to get a fight there,” Gabriel said. “I guess he didn’t think I did in the first game and I guess he deemed that it was time tonight.”

It happened right at the start of the third period, as Gabriel and Reaves dropped the gloves in a spirited tilt between two of the league’s true heavyweights.

Reaves may have had the edge in the scrap, as he connected with a right hand to Gabriel’s cheek just before the fight ended. But to the Sharks, though, that didn’t matter.

They were able to feed off the energy created by the fight. Even though Alex Tuch scored just 24 seconds after Reaves and Gabriel fought to give the Golden Knights a two-goal lead, the Sharks still used it as a rallying point, getting goals from Logan Couture and Kevin Labanc to tie the game 4-4.

The Golden Knights won the game 5-4 in overtime on Max Pacioretty’s goal. But the Sharks showed resilience, coming back from three- and two-goal deficits.

“I know they scored right after, but we had a sense of togetherness on the bench, and we never stopped attacking,” Sharks coach Bob Boughner said. “It didn’t matter that they got that fourth goal. We had (time) at that point that we were determined to find a way to tie the game up and get a point and try and get two in overtime.”

“(Gabriel) steps up huge for us the start of the third and fights Reaves,” Couture said. “Obviously they got one right away, but I thought the energy for the rest of the third period from that fight was in our favor.”

It’s been well documented that Reaves has played the perfect antagonist to Evander Kane, doing what he can to get the San Jose power forward off his game. The two had a memorable scrap and war of words during the first round of the 2019 playoffs, and have traded jabs on social media from time to time. They simply do not like each other.

The two locked horns in the Feb. 13 meeting as well. Far away from the play, Kane checked Reaves and Reaves responded with a slash to the back of Kane’s legs.

From the Golden Knights’ perspective, the incident served its purpose, as they got one of the Sharks’ most dangerous goal scorers off the ice for a short period of time. Vegas would go on to win that game 3-1.

It seemed like Gabriel wasn’t going to let that happen again, as he consulted with Kane about what his approach should be before Friday’s game.

“(Kane) wanted me to get after him, but I already was,” Gabriel said. “We talked about all that stuff and that’s why I’m here. I said when I got signed that I’m here to take the pressure off a guy like (Kane). We know Kaner’s really tough, but we’ve got to keep him on the ice for scoring goals and playing that game, so that’s why I’m here.”

Reaves had to leave the game in the third period after it appeared that Gabriel’s skate may have brushed against his upper leg following a check. Golden Knights coach Pete DeBoer said after the game that Reaves’ injury was “nothing serious or terribly serious for anybody that’s really worried about it. He’s going to be fine.”

Boughner is starting to see more examples of his players sticking up for each other, a problem that crept up on at least a couple of other occasions this season, most notably in that February game with the Golden Knights when no one had Radim Simek’s back.

The Sharks went after Colorado Avalanche forward Brandon Saad after he plowed over Martin Jones during Wednesday’s game at SAP Center, which Boughner appreciated. Friday was also a bit of a test for the Sharks that Boughner felt his team passed.

“It wasn’t the result we were looking for, but tonight’s a team that put their heads down, worked hard, battled through adversity,” Boughner said. “Being down 3-0 didn’t change our game, and we just kept fighting. We found a way to get a point and in the midst of all that, I thought we stuck together and we played a real hard game.” Related Articles

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We’ll see if Gabriel plays in the rematch between the two teams Saturday night. But it was a good night for the fourth line overall, as Matt Nieto scored a second-period goal to cut Vegas’ lead to 3-2, and center Joel Kellman played a fairly sound, simple hockey game.

Even though he played just six minutes Friday, Gabriel had a big assist, too.

“A lot of contact, a lot of physicality,” Couture said. “(Kellman) played well, (Gabriel) was great. He did what he does, he was on the forecheck, obviously a big fight for us, gave us some energy and (Nieto) scored. So great effort for them tonight, and we need it going forward.”

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