WASHINGTON -- The Army for the first time is placing women in support units at the front lines of combat because of a shortage of skilled male soldiers available for duty in Iraq and is considering a repeal of the decade-old rule that prohibits women from being deployed alongside combat forces, according to Pentagon officials and military documents.
The Army's Third Infantry Division has added scores of female soldiers to newly created ''forward support companies" that provide maintenance, food service, and other support services to infantry, armor, and Special Forces units that commonly engage in combat.
Army officials acknowledge that the changes will increasingly place women, who make up about 15 percent of the armed forces, in combat situations, but believe they are following federal law, which prohibits female soldiers from serving in units that engage in direct combat.
The Army maintains that it has not changed the overall Pentagon policy regarding women in combat, which limits women to serving on surface ships and in attack aircraft. But internal Army documents indicate the service is ignoring a 1994 regulation barring women from serving alongside units that conduct offensive operations.
The change made by the Third Infantry Division was prompted by a shortage of trained troops caused by the unexpected length of the Iraq war and has set off a quiet, but highly charged debate within the Army over the role of women in the military. As a practical matter, the guerrilla tactics used against US troops during the occupation have also blurred the traditional lines between combat and support functions and is expected to prompt a wholesale review of the definition of ground ''combat" within the Bush administration.
''After this operation is over the question of how they define combat has got to be raised," said Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain who heads the Women in the Military Project at the nonpartisan Women's Research & Education Institute in Washington.
US law prohibits women from serving in combat units, and the Army insists it is following the law. At issue is a separate Army rule that also bars women from front-line support units.
Opponents to putting women in ground combat fear their presence on the front lines -- even in a support role -- will harm the cohesion and effectiveness of fighting units, a view Republican and Democratic administrations have held for decades.
''The issue remains unresolved," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the conservative Center for Military Readiness, who contends that the military is ''implementing illicit plans to force female soldiers into land combat units for the first time in our history." She asserts that the Army is circumventing regulations through ''subterfuge" by labeling the female soldiers as being ''attached" to the new units as opposed to ''assigned" to them.
Others military specialists, however, contend that the US experience in Iraq provides a powerful new argument for permitting women, who make up about 10 percent of the force there, to take on more combat roles because they have been shown to be as capable as men in handling the rigors of combat.
The Third Infantry Division is the first to attach support units to combat forces, but those changes will be expanded to other units as part of the Army's effort to make its forces more mobile and flexible. Most of the division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga., has arrived in Iraq since Christmas to start a second tour there, and all its deployed units are scheduled to be in the country by the end of the month.
The Army, as required by law, has notified Congress of the division's changes.
''The whole structure of our Army changed," said Lieutenant Colonel Pamela Hart, an Army spokeswoman. ''The Third ID is the first unit to deploy with the reconfiguration, so this will be the first time where this is in question."
Women soldiers have found themselves in the line of fire more often in Iraq and Afghanistan than in any previous wars. Since the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, about 30 women have been killed, most of them in hostile action, according to official statistics. In one attack, Army Private Teresa Broadwell, 20, was awarded a Bronze Star for returning fire when her military police unit was attacked in Karbala in October.
Army documents show that the strain the war has placed on personnel is a factor in women serving in units previously for male soldiers only.
A confidential Army brief given to commanders last summer declared that there are ''insufficient male soldiers [with the needed skills] in the inventory to fill forward support companies." The paper, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe, said that continuing to exclude women from support units that deploy jointly with combat troops would create ''a long-term challenge," contending that the pool of male recruits may be ''too small to sustain [the] force."
The Army could not immediately quantify how many women are serving in the forward support companies in Iraq. A company generally has 60 to 200 soldiers.
Late last year, Army Colonel Robert H. Woods Jr., a senior personnel official, suggested in a brief that the next step may be to either ''rewrite" or ''eliminate" the regulation that prohibits what the Army calls the ''collocation" of women with combat units.
Military specialists disagree about the implications. Opponents like Donnelly contend that it could be just the beginning of placing women in broader combat roles, a move she asserts has not been taken for good reason.
''If it stands, the same would apply to other units," she said. ''It will be an incremental change that is unjustified and very harmful to those land combat units," including weakening their fighting ability and creating romantic liaisons that would harm unit cohesion.
She is lobbying members of Congress and Pentagon officials to have women in the forward support companies reassigned.
''We have push-button wars and the battlefield is different, but there are certain things about combat that haven't changed," Donnelly said. ''Female soldiers are at a physical disadvantage."
The changes are being made out of ''expediency," she added, and if more male soldiers are needed, then the Army should recruit them.
Some of the division's soldiers also want women removed from the support companies.
''We are trained to engage in direct ground combat on land, and the collocation of gender-mixed forward support companies with us would seriously distract from the mission and possibly cost lives," a Third Infantry Division soldier who asked not to be identified wrote in a letter this month to Representative Duncan Hunter of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
The soldier said that when the division participated in the initial Iraq invasion, six female medics attached to his all-male battalion were romantically involved with male soldiers and one female medic became pregnant. ''It became an enormous distraction for the company commanders who had to constantly separate the pairs and deal with the pregnancy," the eight-year veteran told Hunter. The letter did not identify the soldier's battalion.
Still, proponents of giving women more opportunities in the military say research suggests Iraq has been a positive experience for women and the military.
''The general take is that they are doing very, very well," said Manning of The Women's Research & Education Institute.
''They are able to bond with men or pick up and shoot an automatic weapon when that is necessary. They have no problem living hard in the field," Manning said. ''All those old excuses for why women can't be in combat are falling by the wayside."
The Army, for its part, is closely watching the Third Infantry Division deployment. According to the December briefing by Woods, the Army will ''incorporate lessons learned from Third ID into future decisions on policy affecting assignment and utilization of women soldiers."
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.