As U.S. forces wind down the war in Iraq, Donald H. Rumsfeld stands astride the military establishment as few defense secretaries ever have.

After two years in office, he has his own people in top slots across most of the military establishment. He has triumphed in a military success in Iraq that featured an audacious war plan he helped to shape. He also looms large outside the Pentagon, injecting himself far more into intelligence matters than his predecessors and playing an unusually large role in shaping Bush administration foreign policy. He even has turned around a sour relationship with Congress.

He now is in position as never before to reshape the U.S. military along the lines he has talked about since taking office, "transforming" it into a more agile and precise force built not around firepower but around information, and willing to take risks to succeed.

Most notably, he is pushing the Special Operations Command from the sideshow niche it long has occupied to center stage in the "global war on terrorism" and other U.S. military operations. After the Iraq war, which featured one of the biggest missions ever for Special Operations forces, that command "is going to be the flavor of the month," said one defense official.

Rumsfeld still faces major challenges, most notably with respect to the Army, with which his office has had badly strained relations for more than a year. While the central role played by that service in the Iraq war may ease some of those strains, that campaign also has raised new questions about a key Army weapons program, the Apache helicopter gunship.

But few defense secretaries ever have had as much influence as Rumsfeld does now, coming off successful military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. "It seems to me that he is in a tremendously strong position," said Johns Hopkins University strategy expert Eliot Cohen, author of "Supreme Command," an influential study of how civilians lead militaries in wartime.

Smoothing the Way

A year ago, despite the success in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld had vocal critics in Congress. Even some Republicans said publicly they were chagrined by the dismissive way they felt he treated them, and concerned about his disputes with the top brass.

But when he spoke before the House of Representatives on April 9, the day that Baghdad fell, more than 100 members rose to give him a standing ovation.

Rumsfeld has changed the way he works with Congress, said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, who was one of those unhappy with Rumsfeld last year. Since the two had a gloves-off 90-minute discussion last fall, Lewis said this week, "the relationship is much better."

During the 2001 Afghan war, the Pentagon conveyed little information to members of Congress, causing considerable disgruntlement, recalled Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. By contrast, he said, over the last month, Rumsfeld and other officials briefed members frequently and thoroughly. "It's night and day," Skelton said. His bottom line on Rumsfeld: "I feel better about him."

Rumsfeld also is winning more converts inside the uniformed military, which at first tended to resist his direction. "I am a Rumsfeld fan," said an Army intelligence officer, reflecting a common sentiment. "He put a boot in the rear end of some leaders who weren't known to be very audacious, and put his trust in some of our truly great general officers."

This is not to say that Rumsfeld has altered his basic operating style, which seems to range from blunt to blunter. "The way he treats people hasn't changed," said one retired general who butted heads with Rumsfeld while on active duty. "I still hear stories about how he abuses people." But now, this officer added, he seems to be doing it to better effect.

As key positions came open, Rumsfeld has been able to fill them with his own picks. Three in particular stand out.

Rumsfeld has turned what was once a military backwater, the Joint Forces Command, into his agent of change in the uniformed military. Last year he dispatched his military assistant, Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., to take it over. Now Giambastiani, a former submarine commander with a reputation as a consummate bureaucrat, has been put in charge of assembling the "lessons learned" in the Iraq war -- a function that in the past was done separately by each of the services. The document he produces is expected to shape next year's defense budget, and effectively has made him one of the most powerful figures in the military establishment.

Also, Rumsfeld tapped for the first time a Marine, Gen. James L. Jones, to become the chief of the U.S. European Command, traditionally an Army stronghold. Jones had been in office only a few weeks this year when he began to shake up the theater -- and some longtime allies -- by talking about radically reducing the U.S. presence in Germany and moving troops eastward to new bases in former Warsaw Pact nations.

The third personnel move may be most significant of all. Last month, Rumsfeld sent one of his closest aides, Stephen Cambone, to the new position of under secretary of defense for intelligence, created to have a single office overseeing the organization, planning and execution of military intelligence missions.

Cambone's new position also oversees assets that used to belong elsewhere, most notably a secret intelligence organization that specializes in large-scale "deep penetration" missions in foreign countries, especially tapping communications and laying the groundwork for overt military operations. This organization, code-named "Gray Fox," now effectively reports to the office of the secretary of defense.

Asked about the transfer of control of Gray Fox, Cambone said, "We won't talk about those things."

Another insider familiar with intelligence matters said that from where he sits, it appears that "Rumsfeld is in a death fight with DCI (the director of Central Intelligence) to get control" of intelligence assets -- and so far is winning.

Energizing Special Operations

When President Bush spoke Wednesday in St. Louis on the meaning of the war in Iraq, he singled out only part of the U.S. military for the role it played: The Special Operation Command -- that is, the Green Berets, Delta Force, Navy SEALs and other units that specialize in unconventional warfare, such as operating behind enemy lines and working with local guerrillas.

Rumsfeld is credited for making that happen. Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander in the war, "wouldn't have used Special Operations like he did in Iraq if Rumsfeld hadn't pushed him," said Robert Andrews, who was the top Pentagon official overseeing the Special Operations Command until the middle of last year.

The Iraq war was one of the biggest Special Operations missions ever, with a thousand Delta Force members and Rangers in the west and another thousand Special Forces troops in the north and south. In almost every aspect, the missions broke new ground: Some units "staged" into Iraq through former Soviet bloc member Bulgaria. In northern Iraq, conventional Army paratroopers and tank units were put under the command of a Special Operations general. In the south, meanwhile, some Special Operations troops were put under the command of regular Army generals.

Those novel arrangements reflect Rumsfeld's push to break down barriers between parts of the military and make them all work more aggressively. "I think what you are seeing is their potential being exploited," said Cambone, one of the Pentagon officials closest to Rumsfeld. "Things are possible today that weren't before."

Special Operators have the Hollywood image of macho warriors who go into battle with a hunting knife clenched in their teeth, but in practice Rumsfeld found the command agonizingly cautious, constantly worried about rules and safety, Pentagon insiders say.

Reflecting that frustration, Rumsfeld's office commissioned a secret study to determine why the Special Operations community seemed so resistant to his urgings that it do more to attack al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The classified study, by Richard Shultz, a Tufts University expert on unconventional war, concluded that a major part of the problem was a culture of "risk aversion" that made these elite troops, as one person put it, a "Ferrari that was never taken out of the garage."

Determined to make Special Operations more effective and lethal, Rumsfeld is in the process of picking a new chief for it. Pentagon insiders say Rumsfeld's office is looking at three lieutenant generals -- the Air Force's Norton A. Schwartz, the Army's Bryan D. Brown, the Marines' Emil R. Bedard -- but in a radical departure also is considering some younger two-star generals who have played prominent roles on the front lines over the past two years.

Whomever he chooses, the consensus view is that Special Operations was the big bureaucratic winner in the Iraq war. Pentagon officials said it is going to be showered with more people, more weapons, more aircraft -- and more missions.

In fact, some Special Operations officers worry that Rumsfeld's largesse may prove to be a mixed blessing. They think that he may overtax a small force that already is strained.

There are about 49,000 people in Special Operations, but at least three-quarters are in support functions, or psychological operations and civil affairs. All told, there are far fewer than 10,000 "trigger-pullers" -- and that small group is shouldering a big part of the war on terrorism.

Special Operations does not even have on hand soldiers qualified to fill the positions it already has, let alone the new ones it is being given, a Pentagon official said. The Army is supposed to man a total of 270 Special Forces A-teams, with 12 troops each, but currently can fill only 225, he said.

Wrestling With the Army

One of the puzzling aspects of Rumsfeld's tenure at the Pentagon has been the running feud between his office and the Army, which traditionally has prided itself on its unfailing obedience to civilian authority.

Some people around Rumsfeld feel that the Army has resisted his efforts to spur change. Some in the Army, meanwhile, feel that Rumsfeld's closest aides are overly fond of airpower and other high-tech weaponry, at the expense of ground troops.

The Iraq war may not help matters, especially because of the prominent criticism of the war plan by retired Army officers. Partly because of their remarks, "the Army is the big loser, politically," coming out of the war, said Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a military think tank.

The feud may play itself out through a reexamination of some of the Army's most prized weapons, its attack helicopters. Some Pentagon officials already are asking sharp questions about the performance of the Army's Apache attack helicopter in the war. They are most concerned by the events of March 24, in which the Apaches of the 11th Aviation Regiment, carrying out the Army's first attack on the Republican Guard, were beaten back by small arms fire that knocked down one helicopter and hit more than 30 others, effectively cutting short the mission.

"Armed helicopters will, I think, be the big losers" in the aftermath of the war, said one Pentagon official.

"Rotary wing might have some problems," agreed Lewis, the House appropriator. "We're going to want to look very closely at that performance."

The Army is scrambling to refute those worries. "We can't take these small . . . vignettes and lay blame on a weapons system," Lt. Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's operations chief, said in an interview yesterday.

Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, which is more dependent on helicopters than any other big Army unit, said by telephone from Baghdad yesterday that after the initial setback, the Apache and other Army helicopters performed well in Iraq, even in urban combat. "Though Army aviation did not feature as significantly in some of the roles we'd envisioned for it -- particularly in the case of night deep attacks -- our helos did contribute enormously," he said. "In many cases, those contributions were decisive in tough fights."

Beyond aviation, another fight looms between the Army and Rumsfeld over the size of the service. Many in the Army think the active-duty force of 480,000 is too small and worry that occupation duty in Iraq could sap its strength.

But some defense transformation advocates say the Army needs to shrink. In this view, mass is no longer a strength on the battlefield, because it simply presents a larger target.

The argument about the size of the Army and others may be decided by the course of events in postwar Iraq, to which the destinies of the Army and Rumsfeld are now hitched.

"A lot is going to hinge on how the occupation goes," said Cohen, the expert on civilian command of the military, and an admirer of Rumsfeld.