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BAM, Iran (CNN) -- Search and rescue efforts for survivors from Friday's earthquake in Iran are being wound down as relief operations begin to focus on improving the living conditions for the tens of thousands left homeless by the disaster.
More than three days after the earthquake nearly razed the ancient city of Bam, authorities and clergy -- performing last rights -- Monday said at least 18,000 corpses had been pulled from the rubble and buried in mass graves.
Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari has predicted that the final death toll could exceed 20,000.
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, arrived in the southeastern Iranian city to inspect the damage on Monday, the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.
The agency said Khamenei was joined by other senior officials to "to become further familiar with the situation in the quake-hit area" and to be "briefed on the latest relief aid provided to the survivors of the killer quake."
Much of the city, devastated by the 6.6-magnitude earthquake, remains unsearched by rescue teams.
Though international rescue teams joined the effort to find survivors, rescuers held out little hope of finding any as about 80 percent of Bam's buildings, including two hospitals, were likely destroyed in the quake.
"The nature of the construction doesn't lend itself to massive voids" in which people could have survived, said Neil Hubbard, part of a British rescue team which had found no one alive in several days of searching, using sniffer dogs and high-tech sensors.
Musavi-Lari, the director of the Iranian Red Crescent, a local emergency coordinator and other authorities said earlier that search-and-rescue teams from 16 countries were no longer needed, and that the search-and-rescue phase of the operation would end Sunday.
A United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team in Bam reported Sunday that the disaster is confined to the city and its surroundings, but added electricity had been restored to "major parts" of Bam.
The U.N. agency said there were critical shortages of medicines, plastic sheeting, kitchen sets, stoves, blankets and food.
Tens of thousands of people were homeless with many spending bitterly cold nights sleeping in tents donated by international aid agencies.
The process of counting the dead from the disaster has been "wildly chaotic," one observer said Sunday.
Though Musavi-Lari told reporters that more than 15,000 bodies had already been buried, the Department of Natural Disasters would only confirm that 7,000 people had been killed.
The Interior Ministry also said on Saturday that at least 20,000 had been killed. Backlash
At least 21 nations have sent or are sending aid to Iran while dozens of non-governmental organizations also were helping.
Planes delivering supplies and personnel have converged on the airport in Kerman, the provincial capital, where they are unloaded for the 200 kilometer (120 mile) drive to Bam.
The United States -- which has brushed off frosty relations and a branding of Iran as part of President Bush's "axis of evil" -- sent military plane loads of rescue resources and equipment.
An Italian rescue team picks through the rubble.
According to CNN's Ryan Chilcote, about 12 American planes -- including two U.S. military C-130 transport plan -- landed at Kerman's airport Sunday, carrying the first of more than 200 personnel and over 150,000 pounds of medical supplies.
They were the first U.S. military flights into Iran since an elite force tried to rescue U.S. hostages there in April 1980. (Full story)
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has promised to make sure the aid gets to those who need it "as soon as possible."
Khatami, who has not visited the quake site but has vowed to do so, said on national television, "Our people are burning in their sorrows for what has happened."
As the full horror of the quake unfolds, critics have begun lambasting the Iranian government over its handling of the tragedy.
Reformist newspapers in Iran said the government was ill-prepared and blamed it for leaving Iranians living in fragile homes with no reinforcements.
Structural engineer Mohammad Ehsani told CNN: "The technology is there to construct earthquake-protected structures."
He said the cost of building an earthquake-resistant structure is not significantly higher than ordinary construction, but noted that in many countries in the region, including Iran, "these codes are not followed."
Even new construction does not follow building codes, he said. A similar earthquake in the capital city of Tehran "would be quite tragic."
Khatami has also been admonished for not visiting the earthquake site.
His justification for not having visited the stricken city was vague. "It was not possible for me to make this trip because I was advised not to do so," he said. "But I will make this trip soon."
Iran began three days of mourning Friday.
Bam was a popular tourist attraction because of its 2,000-year-old citadel, which was on the register of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and has been a World Heritage site.