The U.S. Attorney's office here has established a special civil rights unit to identify and prosecute cases of repeated violations of federal antidiscrimination laws in an effort to strengthen local enforcement action that traditionally has been handled by the Justice Department, the District government or private agencies.

The new civil rights unit, now in the early stages of development, is expected to focus its initial investigations on allegations of discrimination against minority contractors and so-called racial "steering" in employment and housing in which persons are illegally directed to certain jobs and neighborhoods because of their race.

"We don't know the scope of the problem, but it's important that we look around," U.S. Attorney Charles F. C. Ruff said yesterday.

Individual complaints about civil rights violations in the city are usually handled out of court by the D.C. Office of Human Rights or in lawsuits brought by various public interest legal groups, including the Washington chapter of the ACLU, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

However, officials from those groups said the U.S. Attorney's office has unique investigative resources -- such as subpoena power -- to develop broader cases showing a pattern of discriminatin and not just individual violations.

Anita Shelton, director of the city's Human Rights office, said that her office expects to receive 700 individual complaints during the 12-month period ending in October, the majority of which involve discrimination in employment, housing and admission to public accommodations. She said her office welcomes further investigatins by the federal prosecutor's office and expects to share its information with the new civil rights unit.

Civil rights lawyers also noted that the federal prosecutor's office has enforcement powers, through civil and criminal prosecution, that are unavailable to either the Human Rights office or to local prosecutors in the D.C. Corporation Counsel's office.

Former Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti had urged the larger U.S. Attorney's offices throughout the country to establish their own civil rights units since the Justice Department itself needed to focus most of its legal resources on areas of the country where there was a long history of discrimination or where traditional civil rights questions, such as busing, were at issue.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Seikaly, who has been assigned to oversee the civil rights unit, met last month with officials of the Human Rights office and local civil rights lawyers to compile a list of areas for potential investigation.

Aside form racial steering, he said the prosecutors may investigate possible cases of red-lining in mortgages, in which lenders refuse to make loans in red-lined neighborhoods and a similar practice by insurers; inability of minority contractors to obtain the insurance bonding that they need to compete for major construction jobs; discriminatory training policies by labor unions; and alleged attempts to keep minorities out of downtown clubs by demanding as many as three and four pieces of identification.

They also will review alleged police misconduct in which discrimination is rasied, regardless of whether or not a grand jury decides to bring an indictment against the officer involved, Seikaly said.