BAGHDAD (Reuters) - As David Matsuda tells it, he's probably the last person you'd expect to see in a U.S. military uniform climbing out of an armored vehicle in Iraq.
An anthropology professor from the East Bay campus of California State University near San Francisco, he's a self-described peacenik who opposed the war in Iraq, did his academic research in Guatemala and never carries a gun.
"I'm a Californian. I'm a liberal. I'm a Democrat," he says. "My impetus is to come here and help end this thing."
Matsuda is part of the U.S. military "Human Terrain Team" (HTT) program, which embeds anthropologists with combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan in the hope of helping tactical commanders in the field understand local cultures.
The program is controversial: the American Anthropological Association denounced it in October, saying it could lead to ethics being compromised, the profession's reputation damaged, and worst of all, research subjects becoming military targets.
Matsuda says the concern is based on a misunderstanding of what he has signed on to do.
"There's been a knee-jerk reaction in the anthropology community, that you've been co-opted, that you're a warmonger, like you're clubbing baby seals or something," he said. "I came here to save lives, to make friends out of enemies."
Soldiers in northeastern Baghdad -- an area transformed over the past year from one of the most violent parts of Iraq to one of the best illustrations of the security improvements of late 2007 -- say they are grateful for Matsuda's expertise as they make the transition from fighting to peacemaking.
"It's a huge asset," said Staff Sergeant Dustin "Boogie" Brueggemann who, as a tactical psychological operations specialist, has spent the past year trying to win hearts and minds in Adhamiya, until a few months ago one of the most violent strongholds of Sunni Arab militants in Iraq.
"The guys who were out with him were saying: 'Dr Matsuda's so smart!' Soldiers even on the lowest level now, we see the big picture just by listening to him talk," he said.
"He gave me so much information that had I known it a year ago I could have done things differently," he said. "He gave me a history of the Ubaidi tribe. A lot of people here are members of that tribe. I knew a little bit about them, but I didn't realize just how big they were."
Further up the command chain, Lieutenant-Colonel David Oclander, deputy commander of the 5,000 soldiers of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, said Matsuda had given a presentation on how Iraqis resolve conflicts that proved valuable in approaching Shi'ite clerics.
"The HTT has been a great help in making sure that when we dialogue with them, we dialogue with them in a way they understand and appreciate," he said.
Matsuda says he arrived at exactly the right time, when a sudden sharp decline in violence opened new opportunities for engagement in his unit's area.
The brigade is a classic example of last year's new U.S. strategy in Iraq that saw greater numbers of troops deployed to Iraq and more emphasis on interaction with civilians.
Before the troop buildup, the entire area of northeastern Baghdad -- including about half of the capital's population -- was covered by just a single battalion of about 800 U.S. troops who suffered some of the worst casualties in Iraq.
Now the area is covered by the brigade's six battalions, including four combat battalions each covering separate neighborhoods as diverse as Sunni Arab stronghold Adhamiya and Sadr City, the giant Shi'ite slum of more than 2 million people.
In the past six months violence plummeted, as Adhamiya's Sunni tribal leaders turned against al Qaeda militants, and Moqtada al Sadr, the Shi'ite cleric whose Mehdi Army militia controls Sadr City, declared a ceasefire.
In December 2006, there were 450 killings in the area, mostly by sectarian death squads trying to drive rival groups out of their neighborhoods. There were just 15 killings last month, mainly by ordinary criminals, said Oclander.
On Saturday, Matsuda -- wearing a U.S. military uniform but unarmed -- spent two hours with soldiers from 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry lingering on a street in Adhamiya where a few months ago U.S. forces would have had to fight either in or out.
They meandered in and out of shops, bought falafel sandwiches and ate them on a street corner while playing with local children who already seemed to know their names. Periodically they knocked on doors and asked permission to come inside homes for a chat. They never turned down an offer of tea.
Most of local people were friendly, although they complained about a lack of electricity and their suspicion of the Shi'ite-led government and its security forces.
Matsuda said he had learned a lot that day -- about who was moving into vacant houses and who was renting them out, how a local clinic got its medicines, how shop owners were getting funding to reopen their shops.
"We have a window of opportunity here to make a difference for these people. We have to take it," he said.
Editing by Andrew Dobbie