Mayor Marion Barry abruptly withdrew a request for emergency court action last night on his suit to stop alleged leaks to the press by prosecutors investigating his associates and contract awards by his administration.

Barry's latest request to the U.S. District Court here last night, left intact his motion for a preliminary injunction against federal officials, including U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova and Attorney General Edwin Meese III.

Under the earlier request for an emergency court order, a decision could have come within a few days. Consideration of a preliminary injunction ordinarily takes a minimum of three weeks.

Yesterday's move appeared to be a tactical retreat by Barry, whose legal counsel, Herbert O. Reid Sr., filed the suit late Friday and announced it Saturday during a news conference. Two lawyers familiar with such suits said that by withdrawing the request for emergency action, Barry would be able to delay what they suggested would almost certainly be a legal defeat.

Reid disputed such suggestions. "Nobody's treating this as a game . . . . It's the fairness of the process. If half of what I've heard is true, {any prosecutor} would go and get an indictment and put someone in jail." Barry's suit claimed that the federal investigation was not directed at the prosecution of crime, but to "punish and impede" Barry's administration.

Reid said he expected quick action on the request for a preliminary injunction and left open the possibility that the mayor might attempt to subpoena news organizations in an attempt to stem what Reid called "unfair" leaks about the investigation.

City officials and others familiar with previous Barry-diGenova skirmishes have suggested that the primary goal of the mayor's suit is to discourage anyone in authority who may be talking and to show Barry taking the initiative rather than simply reacting.

A spokesman for diGenova said last night that the federal government had been served with the latest court papers, but he declined to comment on them.

The papers explained that by dropping the request for the emergency action, Barry would actually be able to receive a quicker hearing on his suit. However, several lawyers said the decision to withdraw the request for emergency action will certainly mean a delay.

The temporary restraining order, which Barry originally sought, is reserved for extraordinary circumstances and is designed to halt certain, impending damage to a person or business.

Because of the immediacy of the damage, hearings on temporary restraining orders are usually held within a few days -- and often only a few hours -- after they are requested.

Local court rules require only that a preliminary injunction be heard within 20 calendar days after it is filed. However, a judge may decide the matter without a hearing or may determine that no harm would be caused by a delay of longer than 20 days.

Under the rules, the government must answer Barry's complaint by Monday .

Lawyers familiar with Barry's suit said the leading previous case involved a similar request to stop leaks that was filed by former Carter administration budget director Bert Lance. A District Court judge in Atlanta threw out Lance's case, saying that the matters about which Lance complained were not before the grand jury and therefore not subject to secrecy rules.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld the lower court's ruling in the Lance case.