Three years ago Kanan Makiya and Rend Rahim were among the most persuasive advocates of a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Both liberal Iraqi intellectuals and eloquent English speakers, they made the case that Saddam Hussein's removal was a cause to be embraced on moral and human rights grounds, and that its result could be the replacement of the Arab world's most brutal dictatorship by its first genuine democracy.

They were widely heard in Washington. Once, over dinner, I watched as they argued passionately to a senior administration official -- one of the architects of the then-approaching war -- that the Bush administration should stop focusing on Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction and openly justify intervention on grounds of democracy and human rights. The official was clearly moved, but demurred. Iraq's WMD, he replied, was the single motivating factor that united the administration's own factions and constituencies.

I found the two compelling. They reminded me of Central European dissidents, such as Adam Michnik and Vaclav Havel, who challenged Soviet totalitarianism on the same grounds -- and who, that fall of 2002, also chose to endorse intervention in Iraq. We all knew Iraq would be different and more difficult than Poland or Czechoslovakia. But Makiya and Rahim, among other liberal Iraqis, nurtured the dream that there, too, a democracy could arise out of the rubble of dictatorship.

That's why it was so sobering to encounter Makiya and Rahim again last week -- and to hear them speak with brutal honesty about their "dashed hopes and broken dreams," as Makiya put it. The occasion was a conference on Iraq sponsored by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which did so much to lay the intellectual groundwork for the war. A similar AEI conference three years ago this month resounded with upbeat predictions about the democratic, federal and liberal Iraq that could follow Saddam Hussein. This one, led off by Makiya and Rahim, sounded a lot like its funeral.

Makiya began with a stark conclusion: "Instead of the fledgling democracy that back then we said was possible, instead of that dream, we have the reality of a virulent insurgency whose efficiency is only rivaled by the barbarous tactics it uses." The violence, he said, "is destroying the very idea or the very possibility of Iraq."

The Iraqi liberals can fairly blame the Bush administration for not listening to them: for failing to deploy enough troops, for refusing to quickly install the provisional government they advocated, for rejecting the Iraqi fighters they offered to help impose order immediately after the invasion. But Makiya, a former adviser to the Iraqi government in exile who now heads the Iraq Memory Foundation, instead scrupulously dissected "our Iraqi failures." Chief among these, he said, was an underestimation of the rootedness of Hussein's Baath Party inside Iraq's Sunni community and its latent ability to mobilize the insurgency that has bedeviled reconstruction while dividing the country along ethnic and religious lines.

The relentless violence had, he said, made political accord impossible and instead was driving Iraq toward a three-way division, accompanied by a civil war that could endure for decades. This course had been crystallized in the Iraqi constitution, which -- hurried toward a ratification vote this Saturday at the insistence of the Bush administration -- is "a fundamentally destabilizing document," he said. "The deal we have is a patently unworkable deal. To the extent that it is made to work it will work toward fratricide."

Rahim, a former ambassador of the interim government in Washington, picked up where Makiya left off, first endorsing his conclusions and then settling in to explain precisely why the constitution threatens Iraq with catastrophe. The draft, she said, was "written as a reaction to Iraq's history" of dictatorship and oppression of minorities; it creates a central government so weak that "when you look at it, there is no 'there' there."

By contrast, the Kurdish and Shiite "regions" -- really more like mini-states -- provided under the constitution will have so much power, including their own armed forces, that they will be able to ignore the national constitution's provisions for human rights, respect for minorities and limitation of Islamic clerical power. "There's a high probability that these alignments in the constitution will eventually spin the state out of control," Rahim concluded.

Administration officials argue that the liberals' analysis is too pessimistic. Among other things, it doesn't account for the possibility that the Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis will eventually strike a bargain on the constitution and political system -- something the United States is quietly pushing for. Rahim and Makiya themselves say that democracy may yet rescue their country, if national elections scheduled for December draw wide participation and produce a legislature capable of striking deals.

At this point, however, that outcome couldn't be called a dream -- at best, it's a fading hope. "We don't have the environment to reach an accord," Makiya said, because of the relentless violence, "and we don't have the politicians either." Iraq does have some very courageous and principled thinkers, but that, of course, is not enough.