Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has decided to personally sign condolence letters to the family members of U.S. troops killed in action, rather than letting a machine affix...

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WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has decided to personally sign condolence letters to the family members of U.S. troops killed in action, rather than letting a machine affix his signature.

Republican and Democratic members of Congress criticized the embattled Pentagon chief yesterday for not signing the letters himself all along.

“My goodness, that’s the least that we could expect of the secretary of defense, is having some personal attention paid by him,” Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. said, noting that President Bush signs such letters himself.

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“If the president of the United States can find time to do that, why can’t the secretary of defense?” asked Hagel, a Vietnam veteran.

In a statement Friday, Rumsfeld announced the change in policy, and said more than 1,000 condolence letters had gone out to relatives of Americans service members killed since he joined the Cabinet.

“While I have not individually signed each one, in the interest of ensuring expeditious contact with grieving family members, I have directed that in the future I sign each letter,” Rumsfeld said in the statement. “I am deeply grateful for the many letters I have received from the families of those who have been killed in the service of our country, and I recognize and honor their personal loss.”

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a West Point graduate, said Rumsfeld’s failure to sign letters himself until now displayed “his lack of leadership styles that are appropriate for the military.”

Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the third-ranking Republican in the House, said that “signing the letter is a mechanical but an important thing.”

“It’s better for him to do it and he’s acknowledged that. It was a mistake and it was a mistake that he’s now said he will rectify,” Blunt said.

The signature flap was the latest in a stinging string of criticism of Rumsfeld’s handling of the war in Iraq, especially after the crusty defense secretary appeared dismissive when answering a U.S. soldier who had asked why military vehicles in Iraq lacked sufficient armor.

However, odds that Rumsfeld might be forced from office soon appeared to diminish yesterday as leading senators of both parties in charge of national-security and foreign-affairs committees said he should stay at his post.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, both said emphatically that this is not the time to change leadership at the Pentagon, even as they acknowledged that serious mistakes in U.S. policy have been made in Iraq.

“We should not at this point in time entertain any idea of changing those responsibilities in the Pentagon,” Warner said.

“We really can’t go through that ordeal now,” Lugar said, contending that it would be disruptive to change leaders. Rumsfeld “should be held accountable and he should stay in office.”

They were echoed — with notably less enthusiasm — by the ranking Democrats on their respective panels: Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware.

Levin said that while he is a Rumsfeld critic, replacing him would make no significant difference so long as any defense secretary executes President Bush’s policies. That’s what needs changing, Levin said, emphasizing a need to get other nations to help with Iraq.

Biden faulted Rumsfeld for arrogance in refusing to acknowledge mistakes in Iraq, but he did not call for him to resign.

White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card yesterday reiterated Bush’s confidence in Rumsfeld.

“Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a spectacular job,” Card said.