NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) _ Millions of land mines illegally planted by Iraqi troops have killed or maimed thousands of Kurdish civilians, a human rights group said in a report released Sunday.

The mines, mostly Italian-made, also have made large areas of farmland in northern Iraq too dangerous to use and hinder the rebuilding of destroyed villages in the Kurdistan region, according to a report from Middle East Watch.

''It is a reasonable conclusion that the Iraqi army laid and abandoned these millions of mines to make large areas of Kurdistan unusable for all time,'' said the report from the group, based in New York.

Official comments from the Iraqi government are voiced only through the official media, and there was no mention of the report by the state-run organizations.

The report, titled ''Hidden Death,'' was based on a survey of 15 minefields in Iraq's Sulaymaniyah, Dahuk and Irbil provinces carried out by a Middle East Watch consultant, Rae McGrath. The provinces are strongholds of Kurdish separatists opposed to the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The human rights group said Iraqi soldiers kept no maps to show where the mines were laid. It said the mine-laying was indiscriminate and posed an unacceptable threat to civilians in violation of international law.

It said the manufacturers of the mines, especially Italy's Valsella Meccanotecnica SpA of Brescia, sold them to Iraq by the millions during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war despite an international arms embargo.

''The devastation that they caused is attributable, in part, to Italy's careless and venal approach to the export of land mines,'' the report said.

In Rome, Foreign Ministry spokesman Sergio Oddo had no comment about the report. Valsella executives could not be reached for comment.

Middle East Watch urged the European Community to ''take a moral lead'' and consider a ban on manufacturing, selling or using anti-personnel mines by its member states.

The U.S. Congress recently imposed a one-year moratorium on the transfer of American-made land mines.

The human rights group recommended that the hundreds of Kurdistan minefields, many booby-trapped to hamper clearance, be identified with warning signs in the local languages to keep people away.

The organization demanded the mines be cleared and said the Italian government should be a ''major donor to such an effort'' because Rome has ''a moral responsibility'' to help.

The mine-laying began after the Iraqi government drove Kurds from hundreds of villages on the Iranian border before and during the war with Iran.

Kurdish rebels were allied with Iran in that conflict and the Iraqi army, in a scorched-earth campaign against the dissidents, planted millions of mines in the region.

Millions more mines were sown during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf crisis because the Iraqis feared U.S. forces might attack from Turkey.

After the Kurds seized control of much of the north during an uprising in March 1991, Kurdish civilians began moving back to their homes, only to find that many had become deadly minefields.

Middle East Watch said the vast minefields were ''far in excess of the needs of military strategy.''

In just five of the minefields McGrath surveyed, 30 people - mostly refugees fleeing the Iraqi army - were killed in five months, the report said.

In just one hospital in the city of Sulaymaniyah, 1,652 people wounded by land mines were treated over a similar period, the report said. Of these, 397 had limbs amputated.

In the Mawat region, more than 100 people were killed in mine explosions in the year following the March 1991 Kurdish uprising, Middle East Watch reported.

The group said 12 to 20 people a week were still being killed or wounded by mines in August.

Some of the mines were anti-tank weapons, but many were anti-personnel mines. In some cases, rows of mines were linked to one tripwire. In one case, mines were attached to a barrel of napalm, the report said.

The most common mines found by Middle East Watch were Valsella's Valmara 69 and VS-50 anti-personnel mines.

In February 1991, seven Valsella executives were convicted of illegally exporting 9 million land mines to Iraq between 1982 and 1985, and received suspended prison sentences of 18 to 22 months.

Because Valsella could not obtain export licenses for Iraq, it formed a new company in Singapore, shipped the mines there, then re-exported them to Iraq, the report said.

The defendants contended the government was aware of the arms sales.

Middle East Watch said it also found Soviet-designed mines, many of them Iraqi-made copies, along with French, American and Chinese mines.