|Female troops, including marines in Iraq, have guarded checkpoints and participated in raids [GALLO/GETTY]
The Pentagon has changed its policy on women in the military, expanding job opportunities and potentially shifting them closer to combat.
The announcement at a press conference on Thursday was part of a Pentagon effort to begin eliminating some of the gender-based discrimination that has prevented greater diversity in the military. It came in response to recommendations a year ago from a commission mandated by Congress.
Under the new rules, women will still be prohibited from serving in infantry, armour and special operations units whose main function is to engage in frontline combat, defence officials said.
They said women's performances in their new positions needed be to evaluated before they were extended further.
Women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have already conducted patrols, checkpoints and house-to-house searches while formally being barred from combat positions.
Since combat experience is a factor in promotions and job advancement in the military, women have had greater difficulty than men in moving up to the top ranks, officials said.
Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, "believes that this is the beginning, not the end of a process," Pentagon spokesman George Little told a briefing. "The services will continue to review positions and requirements to determine what additional positions may be opened to women."
No obvious frontlines
The rule changes would allow women access to 14,000 jobs they had previously been barred from pursuing, from tank
mechanics to rocket-launcher crew members. They would still be barred from 238,000 jobs, nearly a fifth of the total force - mainly infantry and special forces posts.
"But the good news is that 14,000 are being opened," said Virginia Penrod, deputy assistant secretary of defence for
military personnel policy.
Defence 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 US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan had no clear frontlines and no obvious ways to limit exposure to the fighting.
Officials said 144 women had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, about two per cent of US deaths in those wars. About
280,000 women have been deployed to the war zones over the past decade, or 12 per cent of US forces.
The Pentagon's plan to change its rules now goes to Congress, which has a period of time to review the policy shift
before it goes into effect, probably sometime this summer.
Women's groups welcomed the move as a step in the right direction but noted the defence department was still barring women from combat.
"Based on initial reports, our response to this report is mixed," said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain who is executive director of the Service Women's Action Network. She called the continued ban on women in combat roles "obsolete and unfair".
Under current policy adopted in 1994, women are allowed to serve in combat units as medics, intelligence officers and other jobs at the brigade level. But women cannot be assigned to perform the same job in a battalion, which can be as small as a few hundred troops.
The US air force is the service most open to women, with no gender restrictions on 99 percent of the jobs. The Marine Corps and army are more difficult, barring women from more than 30 percent of jobs for enlisted personnel, according to the US defence department.