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However, the memo also states: “If we find that the assignment of women to a specific position or occupational specialty is in conflict with our stated principles, we will request an exception to the policy.”

Strong reactions

The policy change evoked a variety of reactions from Capitol Hill.

Sen. Carl M. Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, welcomed the lifting of the ban.

“I support it,” Mr. Levin said. “It reflects the reality of 21st-century military operations.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a former Marine officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, expressed skepticism about the change.

“The focus of our military needs to be maximizing combat effectiveness,” Mr. Hunter said. “The question here is whether this change will actually make our military better at operating in combat and killing the enemy, since that will be their job, too.

“What needs to be explained is how this decision, when all is said and done, increases combat effectiveness rather than being a move done for political purposes — which is what this looks like. The idea that every combat mission and future conflict will mirror Iraq and Afghanistan is extremely naive and shortsighted,” he said.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii Democrat and a former Army lieutenant who served in Iraq, hailed the Pentagon’s move.

“Today is a historic day for not only women currently serving in our armed forces, but for all of the women who have selflessly put their lives on the line in theaters of war throughout our nation’s history,” Ms. Gabbard said. “This decision by the Department of Defense is an overdue yet welcome change, which I strongly support.”

Advocacy groups also assessed the Pentagon’s change.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, said the move is premature and lacks empirical justification.

“Secretary Panetta on his way out the door is imposing huge burdens on the infantry that will affect morale and readiness,” Mrs. Donnelly said. “Thirty years of research, reports and studies … indicate that this is not a good idea. It will indeed complicate life in the infantry and make life more dangerous.”

But Ariel Migdal, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the women who have sued the Pentagon, said the ban was constraining commanders in the field and limiting the military’s ability to recruit and retain the most qualified women.

“Does this mean of the 238,000 positions that are now closed to women — will they be able to compete for those?” Ms. Migdal said.

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