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Iran's Orphanages Overflow With New Arrivals

Six-year-old Atefeh Razmi plays with a puzzle in the children's care center, waiting for her parents to come pick her up. "They will come see me soon," she says, smiling.

But like the 80 other children at the Kermanian Nursery Center (search), Atefeh is newly orphaned: Her parents were among the more than 28,000 people killed in southeast Iran's earthquake.

Five days after Friday's 6.6-magnitude quake, Iran's orphanages are rapidly filling as aid workers sort the living from the dead and deliver young survivors to the provincial capital of Kerman, 120 miles northwest of the destroyed ancient city of Bam (search).

An estimated 1,500 children have been recovered without family so far and are being held at orphanages.

Amid the devastation and grief, Wednesday brought a moment of joy: Government officials reported that two men and two women were pulled alive from the rubble late Tuesday, after rescuers had all but given up hope of finding more survivors. Normally, people trapped under collapsed buildings can survive three days, a deadline that expired Monday morning.

At the orphanage, a nurse told another tale of hope, about a baby born the day the earthquake hit. The girl's father was killed in the quake. Her mother suffered a broken back and other severe injuries and died moments after giving birth.

"She never saw her mom," said nurse Zahra Mirnajafi, tears rolling down her cheeks.

The nurse named the infant "Mahdieh" after the 8th-century imam Al Mehdi, who Shiites believe will return as a messiah (search). According to legend, Al Mehdi's mother also died after giving birth.

Mostly, the nurses talk about their need for more help to care for the growing number of needy orphans.

"Mister, hug me," a 2-year-old cried out to a visitor.

"Hold me," said another, as groups of children stretched out their arms to or clamped on the legs of passing adults.

Iran's government says the quake killed at least 28,000 people, but the number of those still buried in the ruins of Bam remained unclear. A U.N. report that cited government figures said the death toll by Tuesday was at least 33,000. The report also said that 30,000 people were injured, up from earlier official figures of 12,000.

Aid workers on Wednesday rushed tons of newly delivered blankets, medical supplies and generators to survivors, rushing to prevent an outbreak of disease caused by dirty drinking water.

A team of 80 U.S. medical specialists set up a field hospital in Bam, joining aid teams from more than 20 countries. The Americans received a rare welcome in Iran, a country where Washington is dubbed "the Great Satan" and where hard-liners routinely burn American flags at rallies.

U.S. team leader Bill Garvelink met several Iranian ministers on Tuesday. He said the meetings were probably the first between American and Iranian officials in Iran since the United States cut diplomatic ties after radical students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took hostages in 1979.

"We don't focus on political issues," said Garvelink, downplaying the diplomatic significance of the meetings. President Mohammad Khatami thanked Washington on Tuesday but stressed that the aid did nothing to change frosty political ties.

In a gesture that reflected the political sensitivities, however, the U.S. team is not going to fly an American flag over its camp, said Marty Bahamonde, a spokesman for the American delegation, which consists of 60 doctors and 20 logistical experts.

The Bush administration on Wednesday eased restrictions on assistance to Iran. Blanket licenses are being issued to permit American firms and individuals to transfer funds to Iran. Currently it is illegal to transfer funds because of sanctions on Tehran, dating to 1979.

As aid continued to pour in from around the world, a top priority in the days ahead was to prevent the outbreak of typhoid or cholera, though there have been no reports of epidemics yet.

Yet money is also needed to help the children orphaned in the quake, said Mohammad Reza Rahchamani, head of Iran's State Welfare Organization. He appealed to the international community, including Iranian expatriates.

So far, he said, 1,500 children are being held at orphanages. "A few have parents hospitalized in various parts of Iran, but most of them will remain without family. We will look after them," he said.

At the children's center in Kerman, about three dozen children play with games, dolls and toy cars in a colorfully decorated room. Most have injuries ranging from cuts and bruises to broken legs.

Some, like Atefeh, can't comprehend their parents are not coming for them. Others seemed overwhelmed by fear and loneliness, grabbing onto visitors and refusing to let go. One girl, age 3, sobbed and cried out for her mother.

"They are in need of affection," pediatrician Noushin Mirhosseini said. "We are trying to partly fill the gap of their parents for them. They need to be taken care of."