WASHINGTON (AP) _ U.S. pilots patrolling southern Iraq last fall were repeatedly ordered by their commanders to retreat from Iraqi warplanes intruding into prohibited airspace. The Iraqis, one pilot complains, ``were just taunting us.''

U.S. officials acknowledge Air Force, Navy and allied pilots were pulled back. American commanders initially calculated that the intrusions into ``no-fly'' areas were not directed at U.S. forces and later concluded the Iraqis were trying to lure U.S. warplanes over antiaircraft missile batteries.

To avoid a trap, U.S. pilots were restrained from taking action, even though they greatly outnumbered the intruders.

Just days after the incursions, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein touched off an international crisis by threatening to shoot down U.S. spy planes.

``Yes, we did back away,'' said Air Force Maj. Gen. Roger Radcliff, who commanded the operation at the time. ``After a period of days, we adjusted that stance. But we never gave up the no-fly zone.''

Some Air Force pilots who flew the missions in the no-fly zone in southern Iraq, where the United Nations since 1992 has barred Iraqi military flights, expressed exasperation.

``The Air Force leadership that was running the war in Southwest Asia was so conservative they never let us get in a position where we could engage,'' Capt. Chris Prusak, an F-15 pilot, told The Associated Press.

``They were just taunting us,'' Prusak said of the Iraqi fighters.

Air Force Lt. Mark Reents, another F-15 pilot, said: ``We were initially pushed 90 miles to the south'' by his military commander to avoid a clash with Iraqis. After several days of violations, ``incrementally, we were allowed to move north,'' he said.

Both pilots continue to fly F-15s for the Air Force's First Fighter Wing based at Langley Air Force Base, Va.

Iraq began the series of incursions into the no-fly zone last Sept. 29, sending small numbers of MiG-25 and other fighters into the prohibited area daily. Those flights stopped on Oct. 7.

Three weeks later, Saddam threatened to shoot down U.S. reconnaissance planes and demanded that U.S. officials no longer participate in international weapons inspections.

Whether the policy of restraint emboldened Saddam remains open to speculation. Radcliff acknowledged it was possible, saying ``it does seem to be a chain of events that got started (with the no-fly violations) and then continued.''

Nevertheless, U.S. military aircraft have continued to refrain from shooting down Iraqi warplanes that occasionally continue to fly into the prohibited zone despite tough talk from the Pentagon. Last Oct. 9, Defense Secretary William Cohen said no-fly violations ``will be strictly dealt with, and that would include shooting them down.''

One factor in Radcliff's decision was the concern within Saudi Arabia that U.S. and allied planes based on its soil not attack Iraq.

U.S. officials initially thought the Iraqi fighters were responding to strikes launched by the Iranian military against enclaves inside Iraq occupied by Iranians hostile to the regime in Tehran.

``I didn't need Americans, our forces, in the middle of a situation which we did not understand,'' said Radcliff, who watched the flights on radar screens at his command center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

``My first concern was for the safety of our personnel. So that led to a lot of our thinking from that point forward.''

Gradually, however, Radcliff and air intelligence officers concluded Iraq was testing whether the United States would enforce the prohibition.

At that point, Radcliff said, he was worried that the Iraqis were trying to draw American pilots into a trap by leading them into zones covered by Iraqi antiaircraft missiles.

After consulting with superiors, Radcliff ordered most of the U.S. and allied aircraft _ as many as 50 planes at a time _ to clear out of the area. F-15 aircraft, which would have been called upon to engage the Iraqi jets, were ordered to move out of striking distance.

The decisions caused some pilots to question the purpose of a deny-flight mission central to the massive U.S. military presence in the region, a presence that costs more than $1 billion a year.

``The frustration comes when you know that when it really comes to our national interests, they're not going to use us,'' said Prusak, a top-rated F-15 pilot.

Radcliff said U.S. forces ``did bring the incursions of the no-fly zone to an end and we didn't get anybody hurt in the process.'' A former fighter pilot, Radcliff said he understood the pilots' thinking, but said restraint was the right policy.

U.S. warplanes have pursued and ``engaged'' the Iraqi fighters more recently, without actually firing on them. After the violations in September and October, there were ``no further constraints'' on pilots seeking to protect the no-fly zone, Radcliff said.

Reents, one of the pilots, said that in the initial episode, U.S. commanders ``basically rewrote the plans'' that would have enabled American pilots to engage and shoot down the Iraqi warplanes. The rules of engagement for fighter pilots in the region are classified.

In December 1992, a MiG-25 that locked its radar onto a U.S. F-16 was shot down in the southern no-fly zone. The Iraqi planes that flew into the prohibited area last fall did not turn their radars onto U.S. aircraft.