HEIDELBERG, Germany — The headquarters that went from planning and leading the charge into Iraq to coordinating the capture of Saddam Hussein is preparing to hand off control of occupation duties in February.

After some 14 months in the Middle East, the Germany-based V Corps will turn over command of coalition forces in Iraq to the Fort Hood, Texas-based III Corps.

“The corps headquarters will begin leaving for Iraq around the first two weeks of January,” said III Corps spokesman Dan Hassett.

Hassett said about 700 troops were deploying, led by corps commander Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz and Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey.

Just as V Corps has, the III Corps staff will form the leadership nucleus for Combined Joint Task Force 7 that oversees U.S. and allied forces throughout the country from one of Saddam’s former palaces in Baghdad.

The official transfer of authority between the two commands is tentatively slated for Feb. 1, said V Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Kevin Gainer.

V Corps troops are expected to begin shipping back to Germany shortly after their replacements begin arriving from Texas.

“There will be some overlap, but we’re hoping everyone will be home by early February,” said Gainer. “But things are still adjusting. I wouldn’t want to put a hard date to it.”

V Corps commander Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez is expected to remain in the region beyond the transfer of authority, although in what capacity remains to be seen.

“We’re still working on that,” said Gainer, “but he’s not coming with the regular movement of troops. He will remain to provide some continuity.”

A spokesman for Sanchez’s boss, Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid, declined to elaborate.

“It’s premature to discuss that,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nick Balice from Abizaid’s headquarters in Florida. “I’m not aware the decision has even been made.”

The transfer between the two corps in February will begin a near-complete turnover of active-duty and Reserve forces throughout Iraq expected to wrap up by early summer. Among the biggest units returning are the Europe-based 1st Armored Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade and the U.S.-based 4th Infantry Division, along with the 101st and 82nd airborne divisions.

Replacing those forces will be a 105,000-strong contingent from units in Europe and the United States. In addition to III Corps, some 20,000 troops are deploying from Fort Hood alone, said Hassett.

The return of V Corps to Germany will mark the end of one of the longest deployments for the war in Iraq. In fact, V Corps will be one of the last units to leave among those that initially launched the assault to topple Saddam’s government.

The Corps headquarters was dispatched to Kuwait in November 2002 for war games designed to rehearse invasion plans. After a two-week respite over the Christmas holidays, the staff returned to oversee the buildup for the war.

For those now preparing to return, there is a mixture of reflection and excitement while still trying to stay focused on the job.

“It definitely has opened my eyes to what the military is about. This is my first duty station,” said Spc. Elizabeth Mitchell, 20, of El Paso, Texas, an administrative specialist for the corps. “It’s something to look back on and say, ‘Wow, I was here during Operation Iraqi Freedom.’”

The deployment has been so long, she said, it’s hard to believe it’s really wrapping up.

“When I see it happen I’ll believe it,” said Mitchell. “I don’t have a sense of urgency yet, like I have to start sending stuff back or forwarding mail. I’ve not grasped that I’m going back to Germany yet.”

Spc. Eric Pierce, 21, a communications expert from Emden, Maine, agrees.

“If we end up staying longer, it wouldn’t be a surprise,” said Pierce. “When I’m home, that’s when I’ll enjoy it.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Franklin Fisher in Iraq contributed to this report.

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