WASHINGTON //The US military officially dropped its ban on women serving in ground combat yesterday after a policy review by top commanders, defence secretary Leon Panetta said.
The move knocks down another societal barrier in the US armed forces, after the Pentagon in 2011 scrapped its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.
"Women have shown great courage and sacrifice on and off the battlefield, contributed in unprecedented ways to the military's mission and proven their ability to serve in an expanding number of roles," Mr Panetta said in a statement.
Individual military services will have until 2016 to seek exemptions if they believe any combat roles should remain closed to women.
The move was welcomed by Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said it reflected the "reality of 21st century military operations".
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a suit in November seeking to force the Pentagon to end the ban, applauded the move, which overturns a 1994 policy preventing women from serving in small front-line combat units.
Tammy Duckworth, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives, a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost both her legs in the Iraq war, also hailed the change.
"America's daughters are just as capable of defending liberty as her sons. Lifting the ban on women in combat is good for our nation," Ms Duckworth tweeted.
Objections were few. Jerry Boykin, executive vice president of the Family Research Council, called the move "another social experiment" that will place unnecessary burdens on military commanders.
"While their focus must remain on winning the battles and protecting their troops, they will now have the distraction of having to provide some separation of the genders during fast moving and deadly situations," said Mr Boykin, a retired Army lieutenant general.
He noted that small units are often in sustained combat for extended periods of time under primal living conditions with no privacy.
Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, questioned the extent to which women would ultimately gain access to front-line combat, saying he doubted there would be a "broad opening".
Women have represented around 2 per cent of the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan and about 12 per cent - or 300,000 - of those deployed in the war efforts in the past 11 years.
Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and head of the Service Women's Action Network, said her decision to leave the Marine Corps in 2004 was partly due to the combat exclusion policy.
"I know countless women whose careers have been stunted by combat exclusion in all the branches,", said Ms Bhagwati, who called the decision an "historic moment".
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press