Women kept off the front line as US eases combat rules

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The Pentagon has broadened the role of women serving in the US armed forces – but is still refusing to allow them to serve in front line combat.

The changes, announced by Congress, would let women into battalion groups as radio operators, medical orderlies and tank mechanics, which would bring them nearer the front line. But the most dangerous jobs – in tank crews, combat infantry and special forces – are barred.

These restrictions have dismayed critics and a women's advocacy group, who say the changes do no more than reflect what is already happening on the battlefield. In Iraq and Afghanistan, where the 6,300 US combat deaths include over 140 women, they have long been doing what only now is officially sanctioned.

"It's time for the military leadership to establish the same level playing field to qualified women to enter the infantry, special forces and other all-male units," said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and director of the Service Women's Action Network. Loretta Sanchez, a California Congresswoman who has campaigned for women in combat, called the new rules "ridiculous".

Pentagon officials, defending their cautious approach, cited a 1994 regulation that barred women from "physically demanding tasks" that would exclude "the vast majority" of them. Privately, commanders admit many front line troops would find it hard to accept women alongside them, engaging an enemy directly in combat.

The Pentagon did not take up other recommendations put forward by the Congress' Military Leadership Diversity Commission, relating to sleeping and privacy arrangements. Women account for 15 per cent of the 1.5 million US military personnel.