WASHINGTON - Gay troops can serve openly in the armed forces without harming the military's ability to fight, the Pentagon's top leaders said yesterday, declaring that the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" law should be scrapped and pointing to a new survey that shows most troops wouldn't mind.

President Barack Obama, citing the troop poll, urged the Senate to repeal the ban before adjourning in the next few weeks, but there is still no indication whether Republican objections can be overcome.

Still, the survey put new pressure on GOP opponents, led by Arizona Sen. John McCain, who say efforts to repeal the law are politically motivated and dangerous at a time of two wars.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the ban on openly gay military service "requires people to lie," and called for quick Senate action.

"We spend a lot of time in the military talking about integrity and honor and values. Telling the truth is a pretty important value in that scale," Gates said as he released the Pentagon study showing that most people currently in uniform don't care about the ban.

McCain and other critics say the Pentagon's report doesn't address risks to morale and fighting mettle. Gates countered: "I obviously have a lot of admiration and respect for Sen. McCain, but in this respect I think that he's mistaken."

Senate Democrats plan to force a vote this month. Senate Republicans were generally silent following release of the Pentagon recommendations for repealing the ban.

Although historic, yesterday's recommendation that the military for the first time allow openly gay people came with a caveat that also frustrates many supporters of repeal. Gates wants an indefinite grace period while the Pentagon prepares for the policy change and phases it in.

"It would be unwise to push ahead with full implementation of repeal before more can be done to prepare the force, in particular those ground combat specialties and units, for what could be a disruptive and disorienting change," Gates said.

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