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Buildings investigation launched in wake of Iran earthquake

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has launched an investigation into why government housing built by his predecessor collapsed while others withstood an earthquake near the border with Iraq that killed hundreds of people.

In the Kurdish town of Sarpol-e-Zahab, which was reconstructed in the decades since the 1980s war with Iraq, the outer walls of building complexes tumbled away in the magnitude 7.3 earthquake on Sunday night.

A woman mourns at an earthquake site in Sarpol-e-Zahab in western Iran. Pics: AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

The housing was built as part of the Mehr - "kindness" - project of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Some now-homeless survivors simply wept outside while others angrily showed Associated Press journalists the destruction done by the quake.

"Other buildings near our apartment are not damaged as much because they were built privately," said Ferdows Shahbazi, 42, who lived in one of the Mehr buildings.

Rescuers used backhoes and other heavy equipment to dig through toppled buildings in Sarpol-e-Zahab, home to more than half of the dead.

Rescuers carry away the body of an earthquake victim in Sarpol-e-Zahab in western Iran

The apartment complexes sit next to lush pastures in the almost entirely Kurdish province of Kermanshah, nestled in the Zagros Mountains along the border with Iraq.

Searchers used dogs to comb the debris - just as they have since Iran’s 2003 earthquake in Bam that killed 26,000 people.

The quake badly damaged the town’s hospital, forcing the army to set up field clinics. The quake also reportedly killed an unspecified number of soldiers in an army garrison.

Aside from the 530 people killed in Iran, 7,817 were injured, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

An earthquake survivor sits on debris in front of her house in a compound, which was built under the Mehr state-owned program

Health minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, who visited Kermanshah today, warned the death toll probably would rise.

Mr Rouhani inspected the damage in the province and offered his support.

"This was a pain for all Iranians," he said. "Representing the nation of Iran, I offer my condolences to the people of Kermanshah and tell them that all of us are behind Kermanshah."

Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif thanked countries offering to help but wrote on Twitter: "For now, we are able to manage with our own resources."

Also touring the area was cleric Abdolhossein Moezi, a representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mr Moezi said there was a need for more relief material and "security".

The quake hit about 19 miles outside the eastern Iraqi city of Halabja, according to the US Geological Survey, and struck 14 miles below the surface, a somewhat shallow depth that can cause broader damage.

Seven people were killed in Iraq and 535 were injured, all in the country’s northern, semi-autonomous Kurdish region, according to its Interior Ministry.