The FBI began seeking interviews this week with more than 200 Arab-American business and community leaders in an attempt to gather information about possible terrorist activity in the United States, a measure that was described as precautionary and drew protests from Arab-American organizations.

The FBI and the Justice Department said the nationwide interviews have a twofold purpose: to spread word that the FBI wants to protect Arab Americans from any backlash associated with attempts to induce Iraq to leave Kuwait and to gather intelligence about potential terrorist threats.

Law enforcement officials said FBI agents are asking Arab Americans to watch for possible threats and report anything suspicious but are not assuming they are aware of or involved in criminal activity.

Intelligence reports have noted recent "casing" of U.S. facilities and other potential targets overseas by pro-Iraqi terrorist groups, raising concern about terrorist attacks. Officials consider such attacks more likely to occur abroad.

"These interviews are not intended to intimidate," said Deputy Attorney General William P. Barr. "The interviews are an opportunity to keep an open channel of communication with people who may be victimized if hostilities occur. At the same time, in the light of the terrorist threats . . . it is only prudent to solicit information about potential terrorist activity and to request the future assistance of these individuals."

The FBI has ordered a close watch on the Iraqi Embassy here, the Iraqi mission to the United Nations, Iraqi commercial interests, students and groups with suspected ties to terrorist organizations.

Responding to the interviewing effort, congressional committees overseeing the FBI noted the agency is treading sensitive ground and urged caution. "We'll be asking the FBI about this and trying to assure ourselves that they are not in fact engaged in something they should not be doing," said James Currie, a spokesman for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "We just want to make sure that they are not heavy-handed about this."

The FBI is expected to provide information to the House and Senate intelligence committees this week about its response to the Persian Gulf crisis.

Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, said in a statement: "We support that FBI's anti-terrorism efforts, and we want them to be vigilant, but they must be careful to avoid overreaction. Inherent in the current crisis is the very real danger of damage to civil liberties."

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the nation's largest Arab organization, said about a dozen people have called to express confusion and feelings of intimidation after calls from FBI agents. "This is shades of the Japanese-American experience of World War II," said Albert Mokhiber, president of the organization. "We find it to be quite offensive. It is, in effect, being dubbed a suspect class."

Nazih Baydia, the organization's regional director interviewed by the FBI Monday, said he objected most strongly to "political questions . . . . They asked if the Palestine community is supportive of {Iraqi President} Saddam Hussein, if the Iraqi community thinks the invasion of Kuwait is right." Baydia is of Lebanese descent.

"It's not acceptable," said James Zogby, director of The Arab American Institute, another national group. "When the long arm of government reaches into your living room, it creates a political chill and silences political debate."

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), whose grandparents were born in Lebanon, said that, "if there is the slightest scintilla of evidence" that someone "has knowledge about terrorism, sure they should be interrogated." But "just to take an ethnic group and start asking questions disturbs me," he added. "The FBI has fallen victim to and is only nurturing the absolutely ludicrous perception that only Arabs and all Arabs are terrorists."

The Justice Department also is studying a proposal to ask the 8,500 Iraqis estimated to be living in the United States to re-register with immigration authorities. But one official said the department is far more likely to support heightened surveillance at U.S. entry points.