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US Quake Relief Aid Flowing Into Iran - 2003-12-30

Official and unofficial aid from the United States is flowing into Iran as part of international assistance efforts in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. The U.S. government is sending in relief supplies, and non-governmental groups and private citizens are also adding their support.

The strong earthquake that struck the southeastern Iranian city of Bam has already killed at least 25,000 people.

Margaret Larson, with the U.S.-based humanitarian relief organization Mercy Corps, says her group's focus now is on helping the survivors. "We were able to get a five-person team on the ground in Bam right away. And they brought with them truckloads of bottled water and oil heaters, which are both used as stoves and for warmth. And also double-sized blankets. So we're now working on getting tents into the area and medicine. It looks to be a very large-scale disaster. And it appears that this is going to be going on for some time. There are a great many people, maybe as many as 100,000, homeless at this time," she says.

When the earthquake struck, Mercy Corps was already on the ground in Iran, helping Afghan refugees inside the Iranian border. The group is the first American-based aid agency to be registered with Iranian authorities. On Sunday a U.S. Air Force cargo airplane delivered the first nine tons of a promised 68 ton shipment of medical supplies, food and purified water. United States airmen and Iranian soldiers are working side-by-side to unload and distribute the supplies.

Early Monday morning, an Urban Search and Rescue Team from the U.S. state of Virginia arrived in Iran. It is the first element of a larger Disaster Response Team dispatched by the U.S. Agency for International Development. It includes 66 medical experts. The agency says it has mobilized for rapid delivery prepositioned supplies in Dubai, including blankets and plastic sheeting for temporary shelters. U.S. officials also say they are working with international agencies to determine the most immediate needs of the earthquake victims.

Ms. Larson of the Mercy Corps notes the Bam earthquake struck in the middle of the night, so many residents fled wearing nothing but their pajamas. She says the wintry conditions make this lack of warm clothing one of the serious issues her organization hopes to address. "It's very cold, getting more blankets and tents in for families. Then, obviously, food and clean water. And then our secondary concern would be what may be the emergent health needs. In situations like this, it is very common for the clean water supply to be disrupted and for there to be disease outbreaks. So, in the next 48-72 hours, we'd be looking for that and then developing a response for the health and medical needs," she says.

Ms. Larson says Mercy Corps has received approval from the Iranian government for three international staffers to join a team of Iranian-national staffers already on the ground. "What we're trying to do at this point is pick out a site and get it approved to set up a small refugee camp for about 1,000 families, so that we can be permanently caring for those people as others set up other sites around Bam," she says.

Meanwhile, American Red Cross spokeswoman Jacki Flowers says the organization is working through the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to support Iranian relief efforts. "The fundamental principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement mandate that we remain impartial, neutral and independent," she says.

She adds that one of her organization's major functions is to help establish contact between Iranian-Americans and their relatives who were affected by the quake. "One of the ways that, in a disaster of this magnitude, one of the ways that that is so important is in making these inquiries and getting the information through the networks and back, so people can be re-connected with family members and loved ones," she says.

Both Mercy Corps and the American Red Cross say they have received generous donations for earthquake relief from the Iranian-American community.

Dokhi Fassihian, executive director of the non-profit National Iranian American Council, says the contributions go through the humanitarian organizations because there is no way to send the money directly. "We've been trying to help the [Iranian] community here raise money and send it to Iran. Because of the sanctions, as you know, Iranian-Americans and the American public in general can't send direct donations to Iran, to any entity in Iran," he says.

The United States has imposed sanctions against Iran that limit trade and most other dealings between the countries because Washington says Iran sponsors terrorism, is trying to acquire nuclear weapons and has a poor human rights record.

Ms. Fassihian says she thinks it is promising to see humanitarian concerns take precedence over the hostile political relationship between the United States and Iran. She adds, though, that it remains to be seen what will happen in the future.