- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2003

Fairfax County’s urban search-and-rescue team yesterday deployed to southeastern Iran to help find survivors of an earthquake that left as many as 20,000 people dead in the ancient city of Bam.

“The crew seemed anxious to go over there and do what they’re trained to do,” said Sgt. Mitch Gettle, a spokesman for Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del. “Most were calling family members and just mentally preparing for the task at hand.”

The 73 members of Virginia Task Force One, which consists mainly of Fairfax County firefighters, will join about 130 other search-and-rescue and emergency medical technicians from Los Angeles and Boston in the rescue effort in Iran, said Bush administration spokesman Scott McClellan.

Disaster-relief experts from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State Department will assist in the operation, Mr. McClellan said.

The Bush administration also has begun sending 150,000 pounds of medical supplies in a military airlift to Iran. Food, blood, blankets and plastic sheeting for temporary housing are being shipped aboard six C-130 cargo planes, officials said. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the planes were to leave the United States last night and arrive in Iran “sometime within the next 24 hours.”

“The United States will continue to work with Iranian authorities and international relief organizations to help the people of Iran during this challenging time,” the White House said yesterday in a statement issued from President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The United Nations, the International Red Cross and the Iranian Red Crescent Society are taking part in the rescue and recovery effort.

Fairfax County’s team was activated about 4 a.m. yesterday by USAID and departed from Dover Air Force Base yesterday afternoon. They will go to an undisclosed location in Europe before joining the rescue efforts in Bam, said Sgt. Gettle.

The civilian teams — which consist of doctors, paramedics, structural engineers, search dogs and rescue experts — include 70 firefighters from California Task Force Two and members of the Boston-based International Medical Surgical Response Team, a group of about 60 surgeons, nurses and other medical experts.

The Fairfax County and California teams are two of 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.

A senior administration official said the aid shipments do not mark a shift in U.S. policy toward Iran. However, the airlift could help thaw relations with Iran, which Mr. 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.

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.

The American response to the quake Friday is 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 persons in the northwestern part of the country.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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