UPDATE 4 – Powerful earthquake strikes the Iraq-Iran border, at least 213 dead

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A powerful earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 7.3 has struck northwest Iran near the border with Iraq, killing at least 213 people and injuring more than 2,100 others, local officials say. The shaking was felt across the Middle East.

The earthquake, which struck at 9:18 p.m. local time on Sunday, was centered in Iran but just a short distance from the border with northeast Iraq. The epicenter is about 32 kilometers (20 miles) south of Halabja, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) put the preliminary magnitude of Sunday’s earthquake at 7.3, up from an initial estimate of 7.2. It struck about 23 kilometers (14 miles) below the surface, making it a relatively shallow earthquake.

Buildings were destroyed on both the Iraqi and Iranian side of the border, but the extent of the damage and casualties was not immediately known. Rescue work continued on early Monday morning as an unknown number of people were still believed to be trapped under the rubble.

At least 207 people were killed in Iran and 1,686 others were injured, the country’s crisis management organization said on early Monday. In Iraq, at least 6 people were killed and more than 500 others were injured, according to the Joint Crisis Coordination Center of the Kurdish government.

“I never felt anything stronger than this in my life,” a resident in Sulaymaniyah, about 89 kilometers (55 miles) from the epicenter, told the European-Mediterranean Seismological Center. Others also reported feeling very strong shaking.

The tremors were also felt in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, eastern Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. There were no immediate reports of serious damage or casualties from those countries.

According to computer models from the USGS, as many as 70.4 million people across the region may have felt Sunday’s earthquake, including 239,000 people who may have experienced “very strong” to “severe” shaking.

“Overall, the population in this region resides in structures that are highly vulnerable to earthquake shaking, though some resistant structures exist,” the USGS said in an assessment. “Significant casualties and damage are likely and the disaster is potentially widespread.”

Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority said it was ready to send rescue personnel and supplies to the quake-hit area. It said 92 rescue workers were on standby along with a supply of 4,000 tens and 7,000 blankets.

Iran sits astride several major fault lines and is prone to frequent tremors.

Even earthquakes with relatively low magnitudes often cause serious damage and large numbers of casualties in certain parts of Iran due to poor construction. Tremors which strike late at night or early in the morning are especially deadly as most residents are sleeping in their homes at that time.

In August 2012, at least 306 people were killed and more than 3,000 others were injured when a 6.2-magnitude earthquake struck about 17 kilometers (10 miles) from the city of Ahar in East Azerbaijan Province. It was estimated that more than 5,000 buildings were seriously damaged.

And in December 2003, some 31,000 people were killed when a strong 6.6-magnitude earthquake struck near Bam in southeastern Iran, causing widespread devastation with up to 85% of the region’s buildings destroyed. The country’s worst ever earthquake happened in the year 856, killing an estimated 200,000 people.

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