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28 Dec 03,, 02:24
U.S. sends medical supplies, searchers to Iran
Government, civilian teams to work with international aid agencies

The Associated Press

CRAWFORD, Texas - The Bush administration is sending 150,000 pounds of medical supplies in a military airlift to quake-ravaged Iran, White House officials said Saturday.

The administration is also dispatching teams of about 200 search-and-rescue, disaster relief coordination and surgical experts from Fairfax County, Va., Los Angeles and Boston, said spokesman Scott McClellan. Disaster-response experts will also be drawn from three federal agencies.

The aid shipments are the result of highly unusual direct communications between Iran and the United States, which maintain no formal diplomatic ties. But senior administration officials emphasized the assistance does not mark a change in U.S. policy toward Iran, which remains on the State Department's list of sponsors of terrorism.

The government and civilian teams will work with the International Red Cross, the Iranian Red Crescent Society and the United Nations to determine needs and distribute the supplies.

Among the medical supplies being shipped aboard six C-130 cargo planes are blood, food, blankets and plastic sheeting for temporary housing, officials said.

California team on standby

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said late Saturday the planes were to leave the United States later in the evening, and arrive in Iran "sometime within the next 24 hours."

However, a delay developed with the Los Angeles crew, apparently after Iranian officials contacted the White House.

"We're not going yet, but we're not going home," Los Angeles County Fire Department Battalion Chief Terry DeJournett told the team.

The federal government's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance initially requested the help of the Los Angeles-based team. But federal officials at the National Security Council decided to delay the flight after Iranian officials expressed they did not need additional rescue assistance, DeJournett said.

Within minutes of the planned departure, the team's flight was placed on 24-hour standby, said U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Carlos Arispe.

There was no immediate clarification from the White House about what happened.

Virginia rescue crew enroute

The Fairfax crew took off for Iran shortly after dark and it was not clear whether that flight was proceeding.

The civilian teams include 70 firefighters from California Task Force Two and the 73-member Virginia Task Force One, a team that includes doctors, paramedics, structural engineers, search and rescue specialists and several Fairfax County firefighters.

The two groups are among only three urban search-and-rescue task forces in the United States that are trained and certified for overseas disaster deployment. The other is in Florida.

The U.S. teams' equipment includes special cameras that can fit in tight crevices to search for survivors amid wreckage.

"The United States will continue to work with Iranian authorities and international relief organizations to help the people of Iran during this challenging time," McClellan said.

No policy shift
A senior administration official said the aid shipments did not mark a shift in U.S. policy toward Iran. But the airlift could help thaw relations with Iran, which President Bush branded part of an "axis of evil" last year. The United States says Iran sponsors terrorism, is trying to acquire nuclear weapons and has a poor human rights record.

U.S. sanctions prohibit most trade with Iran and most dealings between the countries are conducted through intermediaries.

The American response to the quake Friday was much more aggressive than it was to a smaller quake last year, when it used the United Nations to channel $300,000 in humanitarian aid to Iran after a magnitude-6.1 quake killed 245 people in the northwestern part of the country.

Two Americans were among the casualties in the devastating earthquake that rocked southeastern Iran Friday, a State Department official said.

2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.