IT hardly matters that there will be no independent international observers at today's election in Iraq. Their presence is unnecessary since it is all too evident that this election will not be “free and fair”.

How could it be in the siege conditions that exist in many parts of the country and the ever-present threat of violence against those who vote? It is impossible to tell how many people will vote and whether they will represent the country as a whole, but at best it is unlikely that the outcome will be more than a very small and tentative step towards the Western-style democracy that Mr Bush and Mr Blair want to establish in the Middle East.

Amidst all the uncertainties, one thing can be predicted with some confidence. A victory for the Shias of Iraq is almost certain; the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of more than one hundred Shia factions with the blessing of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, is likely to achieve a majority of votes cast. The Shias form about 60 per cent of the population of Iraq and the Ayatollah has told them that it is their duty to vote.

If this is indeed the result there will be potentially serious consequences both inside and outside Iraq. The Sunnis, who held power with Saddam Hussein, are unlikely to accept their demotion calmly and will probably argue that the dangerous conditions in their part of Iraq made it impossible for them to vote; they will not relish seeing a constitution drafted without their participation.

Outside Iraq a Shia-led government in Baghdad would worry many neighbouring states with established Sunni allegiances and there is therefore a real danger that the election will exacerbate rather than calm political volatility in the Middle East.