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WASHINGTON ? Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has lifted the military's ban on women serving in combat, a move that will allow women into hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando units, a senior Pentagon official said Wednesday.

The move would open hundreds of thousands of military positions to women, said the official who spoke anonymously because Panetta had not yet made the announcement. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to announce the policy change Thursday.

Panetta's decision overturns a 1994 rule banning women from combat roles.

The services will have until January 2016 to implement the changes, the official said. Last year, Panetta opened up an additional 15,000 jobs to women. He ordered the remaining exclusions lifted because he had been committed to doing so since taking office, the official said.

The chiefs of the services unanimously support the change in policy, the defense official said.

Women currently serve in a number of combat positions, including piloting warplanes or serving on ships in combat areas. Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, almost 290,000 women have served in those combat zones out of a total of almost 2.5 million, Pentagon records show.

The move comes as Panetta prepares to leave office. President Obama has nominated Republican former senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Vietnam combat veteran, to take his place.

The policy change requires notifying Congress, which must have 30 days to consider it.

Military services may seek special exceptions to the new policy if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.



The official said the services will develop plans for allowing women to seek the combat positions. Some jobs may open as soon as this year. Assessments for others, such as special operations forces, including Navy SEALs and the Army's Delta Force, may take longer.

The official said the military chiefs must report back to Panetta with their initial implementation plans by May 15.

This decision could open more than 230,000 jobs, many in Army and Marine infantry units, to women.

In recent years, the necessities of war propelled women into jobs as medics, military police and intelligence officers that were sometimes attached ? but not formally assigned ? to units on the front lines.

Women make up 14% of the 1.4 million active military personnel.

Tom Vanden Brook and Jim Michaels, USA TODAY