But some witnesses complained that the government was not aiding the efforts of residents and private agencies to rescue possible victims of Saturday's tremors.
"From the first minutes in the aftermath ... the survivors rushed to unearth the dead and alive and injured and that rescue goes on," said a witness in one of the affected towns. "But official rescues halted or seem to have stopped, as there is no hope of any alive to be unearthed and the number of Red Crescent rescue team is not big enough and few of them are trained enough."
Air-rescue operations were suspended hours after the earthquakes, one of them measuring a magnitude 6.2, struck as night fell and helicopters were unable to fly in the dark in the mountainous region.
Much of the efforts now are said to be about providing food and shelter for the survivors.
The quakes hit in a sparsely populated region, but entire villages were sent crumbling to the ground. Many others were partially damaged, and more than 2,000 people have been injured.
Even with the relatively low population of the region, Naser Zargar, who heads the coroner's office in the epicenter town of Ahar, told Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA, on Saturday that the death count could be over 1,000.
The mayor of Varzaghan, one of the hardest-hit towns, said 12 villages in the region had been destroyed. Each of those villages had up to 1,000 residents and as many as a third may have been killed, he told IRNA.
Many of the dead are women and children killed under the rubble of falling homes as the earthquake struck in late afternoon, a time when men were still outdoors working in this agricultural region.
"Due to the traditional architecture of the villages, using clay bricks mixed with straw, rural areas have sustained most of the damage," said Reza Sedighi, Ahar's governor and head of the disaster relief center. He estimated that 25% of the public places, administrative buildings and people's houses were damaged.
The food and canned products that have been delivered to Ahar so far have been insufficient and the area is in desperate need of water, dried food and canned goods, he said.
"People need tents and blankets as the weather is cold at night and they have to sleep under they sky, anticipating more tremors," said Majan Laghaie, a reporter for the independent Shargh newspaper. "We visited many villages, five of them entirely heaps of rubble and debris. ... People are shocked and still anticipating more tremors."
Ayatollah Shabestari, the provincial representative of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for two days of mourning.
There was early criticism of the government's response to the disaster, even as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Cabinet members sent their official condolences to people of East Azerbaijan province.
On Saturday, as the nascent stages of rescue efforts were still underway, Turkish separatists in the region called in to an opposition TV station and complained of the slow response. They appealed to the governments of neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan to send aid.
Iran has a deadly history of earthquakes. In 2003, more than 25,000 people were killed when a magnitude 6.6 quake struck the southeast part of the country.
"Nowhere in the world does a 6 Richter scale earthquake kill so many people," Iran's leading seismologist, Bahram Akasheh, told a local news agency on Sunday. "The maximum number of the casualties should have been 10 injured. Due to the inappropriate constructions, our cities and villages are heavily damaged. It shows our crisis management has failed to strengthen the foundation of buildings.
"We have predicted an over-7 Richter earthquake in the central or eastern ... mountain ranges," Akasheh said. "We should for sure anticipate for it in the future."
A former member of parliament, Gholamali Masoudi Rayhan, told the semi-official Iranian Labor News Agency, or ILNA, that there were also problems in how state media were covering the disaster.
"If Iranian state-run TV covered the earthquakes better, domestic and even foreign relief would be delivered more smoothly to the quake-stricken areas," he said.
— Ramin Mostaghim
Photo: A victim of Saturday's earthquake makes her way among the ruins of buildings in a village near the city of Varzaqan in northwestern Iran on Sunday. Credit: Associated Press / Mehr News Agency, Mahsa Jamali.