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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during an opening ceremony in the southeastern city of Gaziantep, Turkey, February 19, 2017. Yasin Bulbul/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS


ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey will allow female soldiers to wear a headscarf with their uniforms, defence ministry officials said on Wednesday, marking a symbolic shift for a military that has traditionally seen itself as a guardian of state secularism.

The change also reflects the influence of President Tayyip Erdogan and the AK Party he founded. Since coming to power in 2002, the Islamist-rooted AKP has fought to bring religion into public life in Turkey.

Although a majority Muslim country, Turkey is officially secular. Headscarves were long banned in the civil service and in universities, something the AKP successfully overturned.

Defence officials said the change stipulated that the head covering, which could be worn with an official uniform under a hat or cap, should not cover the face and should be patternless and in harmony with the uniform's colour.

A ban on civilian personnel in the military wearing headscarves was lifted in November 2016.

The armed forces for decades wielded considerable power in Turkey, carrying out a series of coups between 1960 and 1980 and triggering the collapse of Turkey's first Islamist-led government in 1997.

However, Erdogan has gradually eroded the army's influence.

Last July, a group of rogue soldiers commandeered tanks, warplanes and helicopters, and attacked parliament in an attempt to overthrow the government. More than 240 people were killed in the failed putsch.

Ankara blames the attempted coup on U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers. He denies the accusations.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, forged the secular republic in the 1920s after the collapse of the Ottoman empire and banished Islam from public life.

In April last year, the parliament speaker provoked opposition condemnation by calling for a religious constitution, prompting the government to insist that secularism would remain as a principle in the national charter.

Turks are to vote on April 16 in a referendum on constitutional reform sharply broadening the president's powers. Opponents fear the change will bring a lurch towards authoritarianism while the government says the reform is needed to ensure political stability.

(Reporting by Gulsen Solaker; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by David Dolan and Ken Ferris)

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