BEIRUT -- Several thousand anti-Syrian protesters took to Beirut's streets late yesterday in defiance of a government ban, while a visiting US official kept up Washington's pressure on Syria by calling on it to withdraw its 15,000 troops from Lebanon following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri earlier this month.
In Lebanon, the pro-Damascus government of Prime Minister Omar Karami -- which is under intense pressure to find Hariri's killers -- is scheduled to give him a vote of confidence today. Many Lebanese say Karami's administration and its major powerbroker, neighboring Syria, were behind the attack, an allegation both governments deny.
The parliamentary session will be the first to deal with the Feb. 14 bombing that killed Hariri and 16 others. Opposition lawmakers are expected to demand details about the attack.
Scores of armed troops deployed on the main Martyrs' Square, near Hariri's grave, where about 3,000 demonstrators gathered.
''We want the truth. Who killed Rafik Hariri?" Walid Jumblatt, an opposition leader, said in a telephone interview on Hariri's Future television. He urged the people to ''go down today, tomorrow, for a month or two months until the regime falls."
Troops blocked roads, banned motor traffic, and turned away pedestrians from Beirut's downtown district, where the Parliament is located, in a high-profile security operation ahead of the vote, which Karami said his ''government may or may not survive." He was speaking on Al-Arabiya TV.
Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh banned anti-Syrian demonstrators and his government's supporters from protesting today, citing ''supreme national interests and maintaining national peace."
Franjieh ordered ''all security forces to take all measures necessary to maintain security and order and prevent demonstrations and gatherings."
Despite the warning, anti-Syria protesters turned out last night in the latest in a series of demonstrations involving tens of thousands of Lebanese seething over Hariri's assassination.
Large crowds began converging on the city center. Soldiers blocked more flag-waving demonstrators from reaching the square where Hariri is buried, but some slipped through the cordon.
Protesters want Karami's government to resign and Syria to remove its 15,000 troops from Lebanon and stop interfering in Lebanese affairs. Hariri was seen as quietly opposing Syria's control over Lebanon and had been expected to stand in Parliamentary elections in April or May against Karami.
David Satterfield, a US deputy assistant secretary of state who is visiting Lebanon, reiterated Washington's demand that Damascus withdraw its troops from Lebanon ''as soon as possible" and end its involvement in Lebanese affairs.
Satterfield is expected to meet Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud yesterday to urge a thorough inquiry into Hariri's killing.
Lebanon says it will cooperate with United Nations investigators currently in Beirut, but has refused a full foreign investigation of the killing. Despite official Lebanese and Syrian denials of involvement in Hariri's death, the attack has plunged Lebanon into its worst political crisis in years.
Lebanon's Army Command urged citizens not to demonstrate or gather anywhere in Beirut today, but Syrian opponents rejected the ban and insisted on a ''peaceful and democratic sit-in," according to Ahmed Fatfat, a legislator and ally of Hariri.
Syria said Thursday that it would pull its forces eastward toward its border but will not bring them home.
There has been no visible Syrian military movement to the eastern Bekaa Valley in line with the 1989 agreement that ended the 1975-1990 civil war.