US lifts ban on women in combat
A copy of Gen Dempsey's letter was provided by a Pentagon official under the condition of anonymity. The letter noted that this action was meant to ensure that women as well as men "are given the opportunity to succeed."
In November, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit challenging the ban on behalf of four service women and the Service Women's Action Network, a group that works for equality in the military. The ACLU said that one of the plaintiffs, Maj Mary Jennings Hegar, an Air National Guard helicopter pilot, was shot down, returned fire and was wounded while on the ground in Afghanistan, but could not seek combat leadership positions because the Defense Department did not officially acknowledge her experience as combat.
In the military, serving in combat positions like the infantry remains crucial to career advancement. Women have long said that by not recognizing their real service the military has unfairly held them back.
The ACLU embraced Mr Panetta's decision with cautious optimism. Ariela Migdal, an attorney with the ACLU's Women's Rights Project, said in a statement that the organization was "thrilled" by the decision but added that she hoped it would be implemented "fairly and quickly."
By law Mr Panetta is able to lift the ban as a regulatory decision, although he must give Congress a 30-day notice of his intent. Congress does not need to approve the decision before it goes into effect. If Congress disagrees with the action, members would have to pass new legislation prohibiting the change, which appeared highly unlikely.
Public opinion polls show that Americans generally agree with lifting the ban. A nationwide Quinnipiac University poll conducted a year ago found that three-quarters of voters surveyed favored allowing military women to serve in units that engaged in close combat, if the women wanted to.
Policy experts who have pushed the military to lift the ban said that it was striking that much of the impetus appeared to come from Joint Chiefs, indicating that the top military leadership saw that the time had come to open up to women.
"It's significant that the change came from the uniformed side, rather than being forced on the uniformed side by the civilian leadership," said Chris Jacob, the policy director of the Service Women's Action Network.
Under current rules, a number of military positions are closed to women - and to open them, the services have to change the rules.
Under Mr Panetta's new initiative, the situation is the opposite: Those combat positions would be open to women, and they could be closed only through specific action.