Women soldiers in the U.S. Army (search) would be barred from serving in combat support units under language added to a defense bill Wednesday. Proponents of the measure said it would affect only a small number of women, while opponents said that over time it would drastically alter the face of the modern Army.

The amendment sponsored by Rep. John McHugh (search), R-N.Y., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's military personnel subcommittee, would prohibit women from combat support and combat service support units.

"The current policy does not serve women well," said McHugh. "The current policy places them in a company and treats them as equal until it's time to move forward and then they have to be left behind."

The subcommittee voted along party lines to approve the amendment. The bill, setting Defense Department (search) policy for next year, is expected to be debated by the full Armed Services Committee next week.

The war in Iraq has tested the military's definitions of combat zones. Soldiers whose roles are categorized as support, where most of the women in the U.S. military are found, sometimes get caught in the line of fire. Thirty-one female soldiers had died in the Iraq war by the end of February.

More than 60,000 women have been deployed overseas in support of the war in Iraq since December 2002. Women are not assigned to combat positions.

Opponents contended that if McHugh's amendment became law, it would over time remove women from all but a few select functions like piloting helicopters and medical work.

"I think it will make most of the women in the Army hopping mad, they'll see it as a slap in the face," retired Navy Captain Lory Manning said in an interview. Manning tracks military issues for the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington.

McHugh insisted very few women would be affected by the change.

"It is not huge numbers, it is certainly in no way is going to affect any other job classifications," said McHugh.

Democrats on the Armed Services Committee were quick to criticize the move, saying it was sprung on them without notice and would place additional strains on the military by removing experienced women from important positions.

"We cannot afford to reject the talents of women who have served so well," said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services committee.

McHugh said he had apologized for the last-minute amendment, saying Armed Services chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., asked him Tuesday night to offer it.

"I frankly understand the minority's concerns about the procedure followed here. It was a surprise to most of us, myself included. I have apologized for that," said McHugh, while insisting lawmakers need to confront the issue of women in war zones.

"We need to talk about it," he said.

Hunter issued a statement saying the amendment "in no way forecloses hundreds of defense specialties for women away from the live fire of today's battlefield. The American people have never wanted to have women in combat and this reaffirms that policy."