The Fort Bragg, N.C.-based XVIII Airborne Corps is preparing to take over the reigns of combat operations in Iraq.

The corps begins its weeklong Mission Rehearsal Exercise — a kind of predeployment final exam — on Saturday, according to corps spokesman Col. Billy Buckner. Once certified mission-ready, the corps headquarters will begin deploying in January, he said.

The XVIII Airborne, led by Lt. Gen. John Vines, will relieve the Fort Hood, Texas-based III Corps, which took over in February.

Meanwhile, support units, including the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade, 1st Corps Support Command and 18th Soldier Support Group, will start deploying next month in preparation for the handoff.

In all, some 8,000 Fort Bragg-based soldiers will deploy to Iraq in the coming months.

Vines and his staff are slated to formally take over responsibility for Iraq in late February.

The deployment marks the second combat tour for XVIII Airborne Corps in the past three years. The corps headquarters led operations in Afghanistan for about a year beginning in June 2002.

The corps’ assumption of duties in Iraq will coincide with a massive turnover of forces in the region as the military shifts from Operation Iraqi Freedom II to OIF III.

As many of the current units rotate out of Iraq, in-bound units falling under the corps will include:

3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart, Ga.II Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Lejeune, N.C.42nd Infantry Division from the New York National Guard.Elements of the 101st Airborne Division, from Fort Campbell, Ky.The leaders and key staff from those units are now at Fort Bragg to prepare for the mission rehearsal exercise, said Buckner.

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