FBI Director William S. Sessions yesterday defended the bureau's controversial decision to interview Arab-American business leaders across the country in an effort to gather information about potential terrorist attacks in the United States.

Responding to criticism from groups of Arab Americans who charged they were being made "a suspect class," Sessions said those being interviewed "are not regarded as suspects or targets in any way."

He said the purpose of the interviews was to warn key Arab-American leaders of "a possible backlash against them" if war breaks out in the Persian Gulf and advise them of the FBI's jurisdiction over civil rights violations, as well as to collect any information that might help prevent terrorist acts.

"Terrorist acts cannot be prevented by law enforcement efforts alone," Sessions said in a two-page statement. "We must continue to seek the cooperation of persons who may become aware of information which could prevent a violent act."

At a meeting earlier this week in the Detroit area, home of North America's largest Arab-American community, Arab Americans called the FBI move discriminatory and offensive. Leaders of two Washington-based Arab groups voiced fears that the FBI's initiative would create a public climate for backlash rather than prevent it.

"It's like walking into a pizza parlor and asking if anybody knows about organized crime," protested James Zogby, director of the Arab American Institute.

"The fact that I'm an Iraqi, I should immediately be linked to terrorist activity or to knowing about terrorist activity is ridiculous," Basima Bezirgan, a University of Chicago librarian who came to the United States in 1967, told the Chicago Tribune. "Why, all of a sudden, should I be singled out when I've been living peacefully in this country all this time?"

Sessions said the prevention of terrorist acts in this country is a top FBI priority. He said there were only five confirmed terrorist incidents in the United States last year, continuing a steady decline over the past decade. He attributed the success to a close working relationship among the FBI and other federal, state and local agencies.

The interviews conducted thus far "have been, for the most part, cordial and have fostered a better understanding of the FBI's approach to the problem," Sessions said.