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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon lifted its ban on women in front-line combat roles on Thursday in a historic step toward gender equality in the U.S. armed forces after 11 years of nonstop war, during which the front lines were often not clearly defined.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed an order at a Pentagon news conference rescinding the rule that prevented women from serving in direct combat jobs.
"They serve, they're wounded, and they die right next to each other. The time has come to recognize that reality," Panetta said, noting that 152 women in uniform had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Over more than a decade of war, they have demonstrated courage and skill and patriotism," he said.
The move topples another societal barrier in the U.S. armed forces, two years after the Pentagon scrapped its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.
President Barack Obama expressed strong support for the new policy, as did top civilian and military officials.
"Today every American can be proud that our military will grow even stronger with our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters playing a greater role in protecting this country we love," Obama said, calling the decision a "historic step."
The decision to lift the ban came with important caveats, and sweeping change will not happen overnight for women, nearly 300,000 of whom have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
The decision could open 237,000 positions to women in America's armed forces and expand opportunities for career advancement. But acceptance into the newly opened jobs will be based on gender neutral performance standards.
"Let me be clear. We are not talking about reducing the qualifications for the job," Panetta said. "If they can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve regardless of creed or colour or gender or sexual orientation."
"There are no guarantees of success," he added. "Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier. But everyone is entitled to a chance."
A senior defence official said Panetta's goal "is to open everything" to women. Service chiefs will have to ask for exceptions if they want to keep some positions closed, and any exception would have to be approved by the defence secretary.
Panetta made the decision lift the ban after the Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded it was time to integrate women "to the maximum extent possible," according to a statement.
Gender-neutral performance standards will be developed for all the new jobs opening to women, officials said. But whether that means the physical requirements become more or less rigorous remains to be seen, they added, cautioning that they would depend on the actual demands of the position.
An example of a physically demanding job that may be out of reach of women without significant upper body strength could be in front-line tanks, where soldiers need to lift and load heavy ammunition in confined spaces using mainly their arms.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the changes would be gradual. The service chiefs have until May 15 to offer plans to implement the new policy by January 1, 2016.
"The secretary understands with a change of this magnitude it does take some time," the official said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a suit in November seeking to force the Pentagon to end the ban on women in combat, applauded the decision.
For many women service members, the move is belated acknowledgement of the realities of the past decade of war, in which there were often no clearly defined front lines. Of those who served in the wars, 152 have been killed, including 84 in hostile action, and nearly 1,000 have been wounded.
Women serve in combat roles for the armed forces of a few developed nations, including Canada and Israel, but officials say demand from women for such jobs in NATO nations is very low. In 2010, Britain decided after a review that it would not change rules excluding women from infantry or combat teams.
"I feel like it's beyond time," said Staff Sergeant Tiffany Evans, a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.
The United States is drawing down its some 66,000 remaining forces from Afghanistan through the end of 2014, when only a small residual force is expected to remain. It is possible that some women may see themselves in new combat roles before that withdrawal is complete.
"I don't think we can exclude that possibility," one senior defence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Editing by Doina Chiacu