UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. envoy to Iraq urged the country's leaders Friday to address the legitimate demands of protesters for jobs, services and accountability.

Ad Melkert warned that unless the government tackles these demands, Iraq's political and democratic gains so far "may seem hollow to ordinary Iraqis."

He told the U.N. Security Council that "this will be no easy task for the government of Iraq."

Melkert said the unfolding events in the Middle East and persistent calls for change "are of major significance."

"While Iraq has made remarkable strides in its democratic transition in recent years, which included the adoption of a constitution, credible national elections, a broad national partnership government and an opening environment for media and civil society," he said "the people of Iraq are now demanding the dividends that were promised by their leaders."

Protesters who have demonstrated across Iraq since Feb. 25 are voicing "legitimate concerns around better employment opportunities, the delivery of basic services and accountability," he said.

He said "how to create opportunities and respond to the aspirations of young people will be key."

According to the U.N., 78 percent of the Iraqi population is under 35 years old, 43 percent is under 15 years old, "and youth constitute over 50 percent of the total unemployment rate, about one million people," Melkert said. In addition, less than 40 percent of children enroll in secondary school and only 21 percent are enrolled in the final two years of secondary school.

"These statistics paint a picture of a young population with few prospects for the future," he said.

Melkert said Iraqi elected officials are taking the demands seriously "and have shown a renewed determination to act decisively."

He said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered Cabinet ministers to ensure that within 100 days plans are introduced to achieve "tangible progress in the key areas of job creation and service delivery."

"Other initiatives have also been announced, including cuts in defense expenditures and government salaries as well as tackling corruption," Melkert said.

The U.N. met with al-Maliki to discuss how it could support the government's efforts and proposed implementing a list of projects "that could rapidly be expanded and fast tracked to address in particular youth employment, health and nutrition, solid waste management, public distribution of food rations, and access to water," he said.

The U.N. also proposed specific initiatives to support the dialogue between the government and civil society, with an emphasis on promoting human rights, he said.

In addition, Melkert said later this month bilateral donors, the World Bank and the U.N. will meet with a cabinet delegation to review policy recommendations for Iraq's social and economic development.

Iraq's U.N. Ambassador Hamid Al-Bayati told the council that al-Maliki recognizes the right of the protesters "to express their views and raise their voices in the fact of all faults or failings." He noted that after the Feb. 25 demonstration, the prime minister told the nation that "Nothing that is objected to or protested will be ignored." (AP)