From afar, the sprawling complex of the newly inaugurated American University in Baghdad appears like a floating mirage.
Encircled by blue waters of a human-made lake, former Saddam Hussein-era palaces have been converted to university departments promising a U.S.-style education to meet the needs of Iraq's growing youth.
Higher education has lagged in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam. Government officials maintain that the American University in Baghdad, which opened this week, is critical to shoring up the country's flailing state of higher education.
The campus is a sight rarely seen in Baghdad's urban sprawl: Ducks float by peacefully, as a handful of students, backpacks slung over their shoulders, head to class. Glossy new buses take others across a winding road.
"I feel more like a mayor of a big city than a university president," AUIB President Michael Mulnix said in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, a day after the university officially opened its doors.
Critics have raised alarm over the university's funding scheme, which is reliant on one influential Iraqi businessman, while the twin threats of coronavirus and attacks by armed groups threaten to add further delays.
Still, university administrators are forging ahead with plans to expand.
Of the 14 colleges that Mulnix hopes will one day be brimming with avid learners, just three opened this week: Arts and Sciences, Business and International Studies. Five more, including Health Sciences and Law, are planned for the fall.
Also in the works are plans for an international school offering kindergarten through Grade 12, a teaching hospital, even a movie theater. A deal with U.S. fast-food chain Hardee's is close to being inked. Starbucks could be next.
As president, Mulnix's long list of duties befits the ambitious scope of the university, from overseeing mammoth reconstruction efforts of Saddam-era palaces three years ago, to hiring staff, managing food services and paying utility bills.
The university is located on the site where Saddam commissioned the construction of a resort. The project included the grand al-Fao Palace and numerous villas and smaller palaces in the 1990s to mark Iraq's retaking of the al-Fao peninsula during the Iran-Iraq conflict. A lake was formed by diverting water from the Tigris River and filled with a special breed of fish dubbed "Saddam bass."
The initials of the deposed dictator are still etched on the walls, columns and ceilings. Following his capture by U.S forces, he was imprisoned in one of the palace buildings. It was later used as a headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition force and called Camp Victory.
"His presence is here, everywhere," said Mulnix. "It's kind of interesting to take that legacy and transform it into what we are doing."
The dream, he said, was to bring an American-style university with a core liberal arts program to Baghdad. It is not just his vision, but that of the university's chief Iraqi financier, influential businessman Saadi Saihood, whose holdings began with a laundromat in the Green Zone servicing U.S. forces after 2003.
For now, the university is "American" in name only. It will be years before it might be accredited in the United States. They must first produce an initial graduating class, Mulnix said.
So far, the Saihood family has spent $200 million to renovate and refurbish the campus, prompting criticism of too much reliance on the personal wealth of a single businessman.
Mulnix brushed off allegations launched by critics of the university, including some Iraqi and other higher-education officials, that the family was seeking to make money.
"This is 100% a non-for-profit university. All the money made via tuition goes back to the university, not to repay the family that started it."
AUIB is the first American-style university in federal Iraq. Two American-style universities are located in Dohuk and Sulimaniyah in the northern Kurdish-run region.
An American approach to education, which encourages a diverse curriculum, will take time to gain popularity in Baghdad, where high school exam scores determine career paths, and degrees in engineering and medical sciences are favored. Liberal arts is a novel concept in Iraq, Mulnix said.
That might explain why enrollment has not met expectations.
Fewer than 300 students were admitted to AUIB in its inaugural year this year, far short of the 10,000-30,000 its founders hoped for. The majority went directly to the school's English Language Academy to improve their English skills before embarking on a baccalaureate program.
Most of the students have very basic English skills, not enough to meet the rigorous demands of the university, Mulnix said.
"We are having to take over from the very beginning. ... The students coming here really have quite the job because it will take a year or a year and a half for some of them when they are starting at a basic level to get through the English program."