DEARBORN, MICH., JAN. 10 -- As the Persian Gulf crisis worsens, people here in North America's largest community of Arab Americans have reacted with panic and widespread concern, as many put it, about "not wanting to end up like Alex Odeh."

Odeh, 45, was a Palestinian activist killed when a pipe bomb exploded as he opened his office door in Santa Ana, Calif., two days after the Achille Lauro hijacking incident in 1985. His killer has not been found, and his death still reverberates in the Arab community as a frightening example of what can happen when anti-Arab hostility increases as a direct result of Mideast events.

Arab Americans here said the unsuccessful talks between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz Wednesday are a sign that war is imminent. They said their community must mobilize if members become targets of hostility.

"The potential for backlash is worse than any other Middle Eastern conflict we've had, including the Iranian hostage crisis of the late 1970s," said Joseph Borrajo of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). "This is a very dangerous time for us."

Ali Harb, 26, a Lebanese American who owns a Middle East import store in this suburb of Detroit, said, "You can always feel the tension here when there are problems in the Middle East. If the Dearborn police pull you over, you know you're going to get a ticket. If you take the Detroit tunnel to Canada, you know you're going to be pulled over by customs and detained."

Harb's store is one of many Arab-owned businesses lining Warren Avenue, where storefronts bear names in Arabic and English.

The Arab community traces its roots to immigrants who flocked here for auto-industry jobs at the turn of the century. The community is highly integrated, with various Arab sects. Imams, or Moslem spiritual leaders, are heard calling people to prayer five times a day over a loudspeaker in densely populated areas of Dearborn.

More than half of the 250,000 Arab Americans here are Lebanese, and the community also is composed of Yemenis, Egyptians, Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis and Chaldeans, or Christian Iraqis.

At a special meeting in Detroit Wednesday night to discuss how the gulf crisis is affecting these people, ADC officials heard complaints about recent FBI questioning of Arab Americans and warned that all Arabs in the community are vulnerable to hostility.

"We need real protection from hostilities right now," said a Detroit lawyer of Lebanese descent. "If the FBI wants to help out, maybe they should come to work with us to open the door first and see if it blows up."

Noel Saleh, 43, a Lebanese American who runs an Arab human-services organization in Dearborn told the group that "all of us, whatever our national origin may be, are going to be affected both as Arabs and as Americans."

The potential for hostility compounds anguish among Iraqis about possible war because many have relatives in Iraq and because Iraqis in the U.S. military may have to fight against their homeland.

"This is such a time of sorrow," said Sam Yono, 40, an Iraqi American who owns a grocery store in Detroit. "I am going through a very hard time trying to deal with this and praying that a peaceful solution can come before Jan. 15."

Yono and other Iraqi Americans step carefully around Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's justification for invading Kuwait last August.

"It's hard because, as a boy, I learned in school that, at one time, Iraq was the mother country and Kuwait was a part of it," said Yono, who has lived in the United States for 23 years. "But I am also an American citizen and . . . affected by what happens to this government."

Assimilation and their U.S. citizenship have made most Arabs backers of the U.S. denunciation of Iraqi aggression, but they are against waging war and would like to see Arabs devise a peaceful solution with no bloodshed, said Jessica Daher, an ADC regional coordinator.

The community is scrambling to mount a campaign against stereotyping Arabs in an effort to stress that its members are Americans who want peace. Borrajo, for instance, conducts teach-ins at area high schools to test American students' knowledge of Arabs. "The most frequently used word to define Palestinians is 'terrorists,' " he said.

Gary Baydoun, a Lebanese-American who owns a real-estate company, said he is urging the community "to participate in every good, honest peace movement between now and Jan. 15, and then, God forbid, if and when a war should break out."

Residents also are preparing to receive perhaps scores of war-ravaged immigrants who may come here to what has been termed "the Ellis Island of the Midwest."

"I have seen waves of {them}, and they are all human tragedies," Saleh said. "There is a deep concern that we're going to have another wave of war refugees coming here, and I don't look forward to that day."