US rescue team in Iran becomes the new face of detente

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Unlike the other camps in the international compound at Bam, no flag flutters above the United States base. Instead a modest Stars and Stripes is attached primly to the roof of a tent.

Swarms of journalists milled about but a distinctly apolitical spin is being put on a seminal moment: the first US government presence in Iran since Shah Reza Pahlavi was toppled in favour of Ayatollah Khomeini 25 years ago.

"I don't know anything about politics, I'm just here to try and save some people. I help people at home and now I want to help people here. I feel very sad for them and I want to do them some good," said Craig Luecke, wearing the dark blue uniform and black webbing of the Fairfax Virginia fire service.

Away from this unexpected symbol of détente between Iran and the US, there was another minor miracle yesterday, when an 80-year-old woman was dragged alive from the rubble, more than 120 hours after the quake.

"She was brought in just an hour ago by Red Crescent workers," said François-Regis de Salve-Villedieu, a doctor at a French government field hospital next to a ruined state hospital in Bam. She was not speaking but was in satisfactory condition and bore none of the usual visible signs of such an ordeal. "She may have been trapped in a cellar because she did not appear to be very dusty," he said.

The woman was one of a depressingly small number of survivors - five in the past two days - found in the flattened city, where the pre-dawn quake on Boxing Day caught people asleep and destroyed the mudbrick-style buildings in a way that rarely left any air space.

Officials have said the death toll from one of the worst disasters of recent decades may climb to 50,000 and most rescue teams have already abandoned the search for survivors.

Suspicion lingers about the American rescue effort. A little apart from the US camp a group of Basij Islamic militiamen watched the proceedings. Further away, the security services kept a closer eye on who went in and out of the camp. But the Americans said they had been enthusiastically greeted: for the sake of their work rather than their nationality. "The people of Iran have made us feel so welcome - more than I could ever have imagined," said Mr Luecke.

"It's very good that they are here and, from the bottom of my heart, I welcome all the help they bring. But I think the same for all the foreigners who have come - the Americans and everybody else," said Mohsen, a shopkeeper sitting by a tent with his family in the rubble of his home.

Like most of the teams here, the 81-strong US contingent contains search-and-rescue and development personnel. Most are medics but there are also firemen, structural engineers and development workers. Steve Catlin of the US Agency for International Development said they were there to assist the Iranian Red Crescent Society in whatever way it deemed best.

For many people this moment is long overdue. Before the revolution, thousands of Americans lived and worked in Iran and in the intervening years, large numbers of Iranians have settled in America.