Donald Rumsfeld, a two-time US defence secretary and architect of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, has died at the age of 88, his family said on Wednesday.

Although he spent decades as a congressman and cabinet secretary to multiple presidential administrations, his legacy was shaped by the decision by President George W Bush to invade Iraq after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks.

Rumsfeld, who had advocated attacking Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before rejoining government as Bush’s defence secretary in 2001, became the leading advocate for the invasion within the administration. He bore much of the criticism when a quick military victory against Saddam turned into a grinding counterinsurgency, which Rumsfeld had insufficiently planned for.

“It is with deep sadness that we share the news of the passing of Donald Rumsfeld, an American statesman and devoted husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather,” Rumsfeld’s family said.

“History may remember him for his extraordinary accomplishments over six decades of public service, but for those who knew him best and whose lives were forever changed as a result, we will remember his unwavering love for his wife Joyce, his family and friends, and the integrity he brought to a life dedicated to country,” the family added.

Bush described Rumsfeld as a “man of intelligence, integrity and almost inexhaustible energy”, adding: “He never paled before tough decisions, and never flinched from responsibility.

“He was a faithful steward of our armed forces, and the United States of America is safer and better off for his service.”

A US Navy veteran and Princeton University graduate, Rumsfeld served three terms as a Republican congressman from Illinois in the 1960s before resigning from Congress to join Richard Nixon’s White House, where he was director of the Office of Economic Opportunity and counsellor to the president. Nixon later appointed Rumsfeld as US ambassador to Nato in Brussels.

After Nixon resigned following the Watergate scandal, Rumsfeld returned to Washington and worked for Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, as White House chief of staff. His deputy in that post was Dick Cheney, who would form a life-long alliance with the elder Republican. In 1975, Ford appointed Rumsfeld secretary of defence, a role he held until 1977.

Rumsfeld then spent several decades in the private sector, including eight years as chief executive of GD Searle & Company, a pharmaceuticals group, and four years as chair of Gilead Sciences, another US drugmaker.

Rumsfeld returned to Washington in 2001, when Bush tapped him to once again serve as US defence secretary.

Cheney and his wife Lynne issued a statement on Wednesday calling Rumsfeld a “great man, who excelled in so many ways, not only through his decades of distinguished public service, but as a private citizen”.

“During some of our nation’s most serious challenges, he was entrusted by presidents to help guide America through turbulent times,” they added. “He did so with strength and resolve that came to embody who he was as a person.”