Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld always has been a lightning rod for controversy, but his icy exchange with an American soldier over why troops in Iraq don't have adequate armor...

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WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld always has been a lightning rod for controversy, but his icy exchange with an American soldier over why troops in Iraq don’t have adequate armor for vehicles could be his undoing.

Rumsfeld’s remarks have provoked fury among fellow Republicans, rank-and-file soldiers, influential military thinkers and retired brass who generally have supported his handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and his efforts to reshape the military.

In the exchange, Spc. Thomas Wilson asked, “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal” to armor vehicles “and why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?”

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Rumsfeld replied that “you go to war with the Army you have … not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

The secretary’s brusque dismissal of Wilson’s concerns raises questions about whether he has publicly betrayed the trust of the men and women in the armed forces, and whether they have lost faith in his leadership.

Rumsfeld and his backers are hoping that the storm will blow over during the holidays, two senior U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“What made Rumsfeld’s response to the soldier’s question a turning point was that it crystallized concern about his attitude and performance that has been growing for years,” said Loren Thompson, head of the Lexington Institute, a defense-policy group that has become increasingly critical of Rumsfeld.

“Rumsfeld’s abstract, dismissive response to the soldier’s question was very much in character,” Thompson said, “but it underscored the lack of political sensitivity and accountability that many feel have characterized his tenure.”

Dissatisfaction with Rumsfeld has been brewing on Capitol Hill for years, but critics finally might have found the chink in the armor, Thompson suggested.

One Republican after another has come forward to criticize Rumsfeld in the past week. Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Monday that he had no confidence in Rumsfeld. Other critics included Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Trent Lott of Mississippi, Susan Collins of Maine and Norm Coleman of Minnesota.

Retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and William Kristol, a prominent conservative, also have criticized Rumsfeld.

The Senate’s top two Republicans tried to stop the bleeding yesterday.

“I am confident that Secretary Rumsfeld is fully capable of leading the Department of Defense and our military forces to victory in Iraq and the war on terror,” Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said in a written statement. “Most importantly he has the confidence of his commanders in the field and our commander in chief.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the GOP whip, said Rumsfeld “is an excellent secretary of defense and we are fortunate to have a man of his courage and vision serving the president at this critical time.”

White House press secretary Scott McClellan also has been issuing declarations of presidential support on a regular basis.

“Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a great job leading our efforts at the Department of Defense to win the war on terrorism and to help bring about a free and peaceful Iraq,” he said yesterday. “And he’s instrumental in our efforts during this time of war we are in.”

Early on, Rumsfeld was predicted to become one of the first casualties of the new Bush administration, primarily because of his efforts to rein in generals who had developed a broad degree of autonomy under President Clinton and who largely had come to distrust their civilian leaders.

Bush promised to restore that trust, and Rumsfeld became one of the most visible images of steely-eyed American resolve after the Sept. 11 attacks as he promised to visit the full weight of U.S. military fury on al-Qaida and the Taliban regime that harbored terrorists in Afghanistan.

However, Rumsfeld soon raised hackles with his public dismissal of the Geneva Conventions, which require humane treatment of prisoners of war, and his public humiliation of Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who told the Senate it would take several hundred thousand troops to keep a grip on Iraq after Saddam Hussein was deposed.

Rumsfeld since has weathered public criticism over his failure to plan for an insurgency. He also has survived the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and continuing revelations over the abuse of prisoners there and in detention centers in Afghanistan and at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

After his reply to Wilson, Rumsfeld told Fox radio that he thought the question was fair, “and it seems to me that the Department of Defense owes every person — that is, they volunteer to go in and serve their country — and we owe them to see that we can get everything they need and do everything humanly possible to see that that’s done.”

His explanation might not be enough to allay concerns in the ranks.

“I can see how that specialist might perceive it as arrogant and essentially saying, ‘I don’t care whether you live or die,’ ” said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Hughes, deputy commander of 1st Army (Reserve) from 2001 to 2004. “He has absolutely no credibility with the soldiers anymore, and remember they are the ones who are out there pulling the triggers.”

Knight Ridder’s James Kuhnhenn, Joseph L. Galloway and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report; The Associated Press reported comments by Frist, McConnell and McClellan.