White House Sends Aid Despite Chilly Relations

Published December 27, 2003

| Associated Press

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 (search). 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 (search) 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.

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, the Los Angeles crew was placed on standby at the request of Iranian officials and the Fairfax team returned temporarily to a base in Delaware after smoke was detected in the passenger area of their plane..

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

The federal government's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (search) initially requested the help of the Los Angeles-based team. But federal officials at the National Security Council (search) decided to delay the flight after Iranian officials expressed they did not immediately 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.

Two senior White House officials said Iranian officials asked that the Los Angeles team only be placed on standby for about 24 hours while they further assessed needs at the scene of the earthquake. They said the Fairfax and Boston teams were proceeding as planned, as far as they knew.

However, the Fairfax crew, which took off for Iran shortly after dark, returned to Dover Air Force Base after smoke was detected. A base spokesman said no problems were found and the plane was to take off again later in the evening.

The Boston team was reported airborne Saturday evening.

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.

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.

Spokesman Lou Fintor said one American was killed and another was injured in the powerful quake in the ancient city of Bam.

The State Department did not release the names of the two Americans, who were visiting the city's 2,000-year-old citadel at the time.

Fintor said the injured American has been hospitalized in Tehran and is receiving medical care. The injuries are serious but do not appear to be life-threatening, he said.

Iran's Interior Ministry has estimated that about 20,000 people were killed in the earthquake, but rescue officials said the number could be twice as high. More than 30,000 people were injured.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called Iran's envoy to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, to convey condolences and offer relief supplies, administration officials said.

The call was out of the ordinary: The United States normally communicates with Tehran through Swiss intermediaries. But State Department officials deemed the earthquake disaster urgent enough to merit personal communication, aides said.

By landing military planes in Iran, the humanitarian mission was extraordinary in another respect. According to one senior White House official, few if any American soldiers have set foot in Iran since President Jimmy Carter ordered a mission in 1980 to rescue U.S. hostages.

A U.S. helicopter crashed during the failed mission, killing eight U.S. servicemen.

Fintor denied there was any "political angle" in the offer of assistance from Washington.

"Our only mission is to alleviate the human suffering associated with yesterday's earthquake. These efforts will not alter the tone or intensity of our dialogue with the Iranians on other matters of grave concern," he said.

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