BAM, Iran – As survivors of Iran's earthquake scavenged for clothes and jostled for handouts Tuesday, President Mohammad Khatami (search) thanked the United States for aid but played down talk that Washington's contribution would thaw frosty relations.
"Humanitarian issues should not be intertwined with deep and chronic political problems," Khatami said. "If we see change both in tone and behavior of the U.S. administration, then a new situation will develop in our relations."
Khatami's remarks came after Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) said he sees a "new attitude" in Iran that could lead to a restoration of ties between the United States and the Islamic republic that President Bush has called part of an "axis of evil."
"There are things happening, and therefore we should keep open the possibility of dialogue at an appropriate point in the future," Powell was quoted as saying in Tuesday's Washington Post.
Iranian leaders have agreed to permit unannounced inspections of the country's nuclear energy program and made overtures to moderate Arab governments. They also accepted an offer of U.S. humanitarian aid after last week's devastating magnitude-6.6 earthquake (search).
"All of those things taken together show, it seems to me, a new attitude in Iran in dealing with these issues — not one of total, open generosity, Powell said. "But they realize that the world is watching and the world is prepared to take action."
The quake death toll had reached 28,000 by Tuesday and was expected to rise, said the chief U.N. aid worker in the disaster zone around the ancient city of Bam (search), in Iran's southeast.
In the latest U.S. shipment, an American military plane carrying 80 personnel and medical supplies landed early Tuesday in the provincial capital of Kerman. The team reached Bam, 120 miles to the southeast, by midday.
Seven U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo planes have already delivered 150,000 pounds of relief supplies — including blankets, medical supplies and water — making the United States one of the largest international donors.
In Kerman, Khatami said the death toll was expected to top 30,000 — roughly a third of the city's population. At least 12,000 people were injured. Downplaying higher figures, he said the death toll "definitely won't reach 40,000."
Khatami thanked the United States for its humanitarian assistance, but he warned that the move did not necessarily signal a change in relations.
The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since radical Islamists overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, took Americans hostage and held them until January 1981.
Powell tempered his comments about the possibility of restored ties, adding that "we still have concerns about terrorist activities, of course, and there are other issues with respect to Al Qaeda and other matters that we'll have to keep in mind."
Still, Russia's Foreign Ministry was quick to welcome Powell's remarks, saying it "may become a positive impulse for the movement toward the normalization of relations between these countries.
"In our view, this in turn could promote the strengthening of international security," ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said in a statement.
Along the ruined streets of Bam, crowds of people surrounded aid trucks. Women in black chadors, some carrying infants, scrambled for old clothes. Some young men tried to clamber onto a truck to help themselves but were pushed back.
Others scavenged in search of their belongings. One man extracted a pair of trousers and a bottle of water from a pile of rocks where his house used to be.
With no new survivors pulled from the rubble, aid workers shifted their to treating the injured and homeless and burying the dead.
"We have gone out of the rescue phase and entered the humanitarian relief phase of the operation," said Ted Peran, the top U.N. relief worker. "There's always hope of pulling more survivors out ... but the window of opportunity is closing rapidly."
There were no reports of disease so far, with temperatures that drop to near-freezing at night making the risk of epidemic less than it would be in warmer weather, Peran said.
Friday's earthquake struck before sunrise, entombing thousands of sleeping residents in their homes. The city's mud-brick houses, constructed without supporting metal or wooden beams, crumbled into small chunks and powdery dust.
Bam's 2,000 year-old citadel, the world's largest medieval mud fortress, was largely destroyed by the quake. Khatami said a committee of foreign experts would determine how best to go about rebuilding it.
"We will rebuild the Bam citadel as the symbol of some 3,000 years of history in this part of Iran," said Khatami, adding that the U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO, had offered to help. UNESCO had considered declaring the citadel a protected World Heritage Site.
At Bam's cemetery, where thousands of quake victims have already been buried, workers dug 130-foot trenches to hold bodies wrapped in white shrouds. One woman pounded the ground with her fist.
"I was a good Muslim. I prayed to God all the time," said 44-year-old Alma Sepehr, sobbing beside a grave holding the remains of 21 relatives including her daughter, son and husband. "Why did this happen to us?"