Iriberri is new AFP chief

MANILA, Philippines (8th UPDATE) –  Lieutenant General Hernando Iriberri is the new chief of the 120,000-strong Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), in what could possibly be the most contested race in recent military history.

The appointment of Iriberri, current Army commanding general, came at the eleventh hour, just before the change-of-command ceremony at Camp Aguinaldo on Friday, July 10.

The delay in the announcement is unprecedented; protocol officers did not know as of early Friday morning what name to print out for the program whose special guest is the commander-in-chief, President Benigno Aquino III. (READ: Aquino, Gazmin ex-aides contender for AFP chief)

Iriberri is replacing General Gregorio Catapang Jr, who is reaching the mandatory retirement age of 56 on Saturday, July 11. Catapang assumed command of the AFP one year ago. At the time, Catapang was informed of his appoinment two days before the official turnover ceremony.

Iriberri is scheduled to retire in April 2016, a month before the May 2016 presidential race.

He is the 6th chief of staff of Aquino, who is only 5 years in office. Former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had 11 chiefs of staff in her 9 years in office. (READ: Fixed term for AFP chief: Why it's needed)

Contenders

LAST MINUTE. Military officers only learned about Iriberri's appointment on the day of the ceremony. Photo by Benhur Arcayan/ Malacau00f1ang Photo Bureau

LAST MINUTE. Military officers only learned about Iriberri's appointment on the day of the ceremony.

Photo by Benhur Arcayan/ Malacau00f1ang Photo Bureau

In today's appointment, all the major contenders were kept in the dark up to Friday morning. They were told that President Aquino had to have one final meeting with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin before any announcement was made. (READ: Bets for AFP chief: And they waited)

Gazmin was part of the high-powered government delegation that trooped to The Hague for the oral hearings on the Philippines' case against China. He arrived in Manila at around 10 pm Thursday, July 9.

Two military sources told Rappler about Iriberri's appointment Friday morning.

Iriberri bested Air Force chief Lieutenant General Jeffrey Delgado, who is close to the Aquino family. Delgado served as former aide of the late President Corazon Aquino.

He also bested the so-called dark horse in the race, Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Visaya, who was the battalion commander in Hacienda Luisita during clashes with striking workers in 2004. It was there that Visaya got to know Aquino.

The idea of appointing another general outside of the top contenders Iriberri and Delgado came about because the two will be retiring at the height of the campaign for the 2016 presidential elections (Iriberri in April 2016; Delgado in March 2016). (READ: Luisita commander is contender for AFP chief, too)

Gazmin's choice

President Aquino presided over the turnover ceremont at 10 am Friday. (READ: Aquino's order to new AFP chief hints of term extension)

Iriberri is the fair-haired boy of Gazmin, commander of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) during the term of Mrs. Aquino.

Gazmin has vetted all chief of staff appointments since Aquino was elected president in 2010. (READ: Voltaire Gazmin: The untouchable)

Iriberri was Gazmin's spokesman when Gazmin was Army chief.

When Gazmin became defense secretary, Iriberri became his senior military adviser and spokesman before the young officer also rose in the military hierarchy.

In his rise, Iriberri overtook generals more senior than him.

He stirred some controversy in military circles in February 2013 when he – then the commander of the 7th Infantry Division – bested his own commander at the Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom) for the Army chief post.

That Nolcom chief was months later appointed as AFP chief, General Catapang, who is a member of PMA Class 1981. 

Challenges

Iriberri assumes command of the military as the country faces various external and internal challenges.

China is completing construction of artificial islands in several areas in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea); some are within the country's 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. 

While the military claims the communist insurgency movement has been significantly diminished, there are regions where the New People's Army (NPA) continues to show strength. 

There are also concerns that possible delays in peace talks with Muslim rebels might trigger a new wave of conflict in Mindanao. – Rappler.com