WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has decided to lift the military's ban on women serving in combat, a move that could open thousands of front-line warfighting jobs to female service members, a senior U.S. defense official said.
The move was welcomed by U.S. Senator Carl Levin, the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said it reflected the "reality of 21st century military operations," and by the American Civil Liberties Union, which had filed a suit in November seeking to force the Pentagon to end the ban.
"This is an historic step for equality and for recognizing the role women have, and will continue to play, in the defense of our nation," said Senator Patty Murray.
The decision, expected to be formally announced later, would give the individual military services until 2016 to seek an exemption if they believe any jobs should remain closed to women, a defense official said. It was unclear when the change would go into effect.
"This policy change will initiate a process whereby the services will develop a plan to implement this decision, which was made by the secretary of defense upon recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," the official said.
The decision overturns a 1994 policy that prevents women from serving in small front-line combat units.
It comes nearly a year after the Pentagon unveiled a policy that opened 14,000 new jobs to women but continued to prohibit them from serving in infantry, armor and special operations units whose main function was to engage in front-line combat.
Asked last year why women who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan conducting security details and house-to-house searches were still being formally barred from combat positions, Pentagon officials said the services wanted to see how they performed in the new positions before opening up further.
About 2 percent of U.S. deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have been women. Some 280,000 women have been deployed to the war zones over the past decade, about 12 percent of the U.S. total.
Defense officials noted that 10 years of combat had made it clear that some of the military's gender-based restrictions were obsolete because the battlefields faced by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan had no clear front lines and no obvious ways to limit exposure to the fighting.
"This policy has become irrelevant given the modern battlespace with its nonlinear boundaries," the Defense Department said in a report to Congress.
More than 200,000 women serve as active duty members of the military, including more than 37,000 officers.
(Reporting By David Alexander and Phil Stewart; Editing by Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman)
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