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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon unveiled a new policy on Thursday that will expand job opportunities for women in the military but shift them closer to the fighting, rekindling the issue of women in combat.
The move is part of a Pentagon effort to begin eliminating some of the gender-based discrimination that has prevented greater diversity in the overall force. It came in response to recommendations a year ago from a Military Leadership Diversity Commission mandated by Congress.
Under the new rules, the Defense Department would continue to prohibit women from serving in infantry, armor and special operations units whose main function is to engage in front-line combat, defense officials said.
Asked why women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan conducting security details and house-to-house searches were still formally being barred from combat positions, the officials said the services wanted to see how they performed in the new positions before opening up further.
"Secretary (Leon) Panetta believes that this is the beginning, not the end of a process," Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told a briefing. "The services will continue to review positions and requirements to determine what additional positions may be opened to women."
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 defense for military personnel policy, who herself broke gender barriers in the 1970s when she was stationed in North Dakota - in a job that had been considered too cold for women.
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.
Officials said 144 women had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 2 percent of U.S. deaths in those wars. Some 280,000 women have been deployed to the war zones over the past decade, about 12 percent of the U.S. total.
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. During that period, Congress could take action to oppose the policy changes.
Women's groups welcomed the move as a step in the right direction but noted the Defense 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."
The rule changes announced by the Pentagon on Thursday would lift restrictions that prevent women from being assigned to units smaller than a brigade - about 3,500 people - and eliminate a ban that prevents them from serving in units located directly with front-line combat troops.
"This policy has become irrelevant given the modern battlespace with its nonlinear boundaries," the Defense Department said in a report to Congress.
The rule changes mainly affects the Army and Marines, officials said. It opens up six new occupational tracks to women in the Army, from tank and artillery mechanics to rocket and artillery system crew members.
It also enables women with other specialties, from intelligence officers to medics, to be assigned to battalions of just a few hundred troops, a size seen as exposing them to greater risk of combat, defense officials said.
The Pentagon took no immediate action on three other issues the diversity commission raised last year: sleeping and privacy arrangements that prevent full access by women; limits on women being assigned to certain physically demanding jobs; and restrictions preventing them from joining special forces.
While the military has been slow to admit women into combat roles, a Quinnipiac University poll a year ago found that 67 percent of American voters supported allowing women to serve in ground units engaged in close combat. Only 29 percent were opposed. There was little difference between men and women on the issue.
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 military has sometimes gotten around the rules by temporarily attaching women to battalions, which allowed them to work in the smaller units but kept them from officially receiving credit for being in combat.
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.
The Air Force is the service most open to women, with no gender restrictions on 99 percent of the jobs. The Marine Corps and U.S. Army are more difficult, barring women from more than 30 percent of jobs for enlisted personnel, mainly combat and armor positions, the Defense Department said.
Editing by Peter Cooney