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Iraq-bound Russian taxis stranded

GAZ company's engineer tries to keep the Volga taxi motors in running order.
GAZ company's engineer tries to keep the Volga taxi motors in running order.

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MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- In the teeth-chattering cold of the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, they sit -- yellow taxicabs, destination: Baghdad.

Their manufacturer, the Russian automaker GAZ, signed a $100 million deal with the Iraqi government last September for 20,000 cars by the end of 2004. The agreement also included a chain of repair shops across Iraq.

But the management of GAZ has a problem -- the contract was signed with a government that no longer exists.

"We not only want to get our expenses reimbursed, we want to work in Iraq and we don't need politics in business. We want them to let us sell our cars where they're needed," said GAZ General Director Alexey Barantsez.

In Moscow and other Russian cities GAZ's Volga is the car of choice for taxis. The Volga, first rolled of the production line in 1956, is sturdy, roomy, and affordable with a price tag of $4,000.

Vladimir Zatiyev, a Moscow taxi driver, said: "I wouldn't say it was a modern car, its pretty average but its acceptable."

The Baghdad Volgas will go for $5,000 a piece, but then, driving in the cold of Russia is a far cry from driving in the blazing heat of Iraq.

That's because these cars will have features Russian Volgas never have like air conditioning imported from the United States, special wiring, a different engine and even automatic windows.

Barantsez: We want to work in Iraq.
Barantsez: We want to work in Iraq.

The GAZ company says it's already spent half a year and $12 million upgrading its assembly line.

All that -- plus the $100 million contract --could go down the drain if Gaz's deal with Saddam Hussein's government isn't honored by the new Iraqi government.

Meanwhile, the company's engineer tries to keep the motors in running order.

And it could be a very long time before the residents of Baghdad can flag down an air-conditioned taxi all the way from Russia.

--CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty

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