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WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush is offering a Fourth of July gift to 15,000 immigrants serving active duty in the U.S. military: immediate eligibility for citizenship.

The president was to announce his executive order, which he signed on Wednesday, during an Independence Day celebration honoring veterans in Ripley, W.Va.

``Our fine service men and women are fighting and winning the war on terror. They deserve the gratitude of all people who cherish freedom,'' Bush said in a formal holiday statement.

A White House paper outlining the change to immigration policy described it as a way to reward noncitizen personnel serving in active duty during the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism. Citizenship, in turn, will improve the retention of military personnel by allowing them to advance their Armed Forces careers, the White House said.

While legal permanent residency is all that is required to enlist in the U.S. military, only citizens can be promoted to commissioned or warrant officers, or serve in special warfare programs such as the Navy SEALs.

Current rules allow immigrants enlisted in the Armed Forces to apply for naturalization after three years of service, as opposed to nonmilitary immigrants who must bank five years of legal residency before becoming eligible.

More than 31,000 noncitizens are currently serving on active duty _ accounting for between 3 and 4 percent of America's total military personnel _ with just over half already eligible for citizenship consideration. The rest, an estimated 15,000 men and women, have not yet completed their three-year wait. It is this group that would benefit from Bush's executive order eliminating any waiting period.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service will work with the Defense Department to set up processing facilities on military bases. Military applications will not be given head-of-the-line priority over nonmilitary naturalization applicants, an administration official said.

The White House identified three women who will be newly eligible:

_Marine Corporal Miranda Enriquez, 21, who immigrated from Mexico in 1998. Based at Camp Pendleton, Enriquez is with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which deployed last month and is at sea. She is one of 6,500 noncitizen Marines.

_Aviation storekeeper 3rd class Lalengbor Okpa, from Nigeria, who enlisted in the Navy in December 1999 and is serving on the USS John F. Kennedy. She is one of the Navy's 15,700 noncitizen personnel.

_Specialist Michelle Pedro of Guyana, who enlisted in the Army in January 2000 and is stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., one of 5,800 noncitizen Army soldiers.

President Carter signed a similar executive order following Vietnam; President Clinton did the same after the Persian Gulf War.