Saddam Hussein has written a letter urging prominent Shiite clerics in Iraq to declare a jihad against coalition forces, Arabic television channel Al Jazeera reported Wednesday.

"If the hawza (search) [the body of Shiite clerics] calls for a jihad, this would unify the whole Iraqi people against the occupation," said the letter, as translated by Reuters.

Al Jazeera (search) said the letter was written by Saddam in response to questions sent to him.

The Qatar-based satellite news channel showed the handwritten letter without explaining how they received it, and its authenticity could not be immediately verified.

The letter praised Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (search), a well-respected Shiite leader who has largely stayed out of politics.

"We respect Mr Sistani and the priority at this stage is to eject the foreigners and establish peace and safety. And the position of Mr. Sistani and the whole hawza in the [Shiite holy city of] Najaf (search) is important to the jihad of the Iraqi people," the Reuters translation read.

Iraq's Sunni Muslim Arab minority has ruled over the Shiite majority for centuries, and a massive Shiite rebellion against Saddam's Sunni-dominated Baath party was brutally suppressed in 1991.

Al-Sistani was one of the few Shiite leaders who did not speak out against Saddam's rule. Many other Shiite clerics fled to Iran or the West.

The former Iraqi president, who carries a $25 million bounty on his head, has released several audiotapes to Arabic-language broadcasters since being driven from power April 9. The CIA and other experts agree that most of them have been authentic.