WASHINGTON (AP) _ Amputation of arms, legs and ears have became standard in Iraq over the past year for robbery, military desertion and other crimes, Human Rights Watch alleged Monday.

The U.S.-based monitoring organization said governments and businesses planning to deal with Baghdad should try to persuade Iraq to halt ``this cruelty'' regardless of their feelings about economic sanctions, now in their fifth year to force compliance with U.N. resolutions.

Beginning last June, President Saddam Hussein's government ordered amputation, branding and other punishments _ illegal under international human rights treaties _ as a deterrent to rising crime. Baghdad blamed the crime wave on poverty and desperation caused by the sanctions.

Often the punishment is inflicted for acts committed prior to the decrees, Human Rights Watch contended in a report distributed by its Middle East branch. The group alleged that amputations sometimes occur before haphazard token trials take place.

Iraq maintains the amputation decrees were based on Islamic law, which often is interpreted as sanctioning amputations under strict conditions. Most experts interpret the laws as forbidding lopping limbs off of thieves who steal because of hunger or privation.

Human Rights Watch said Iraq adopted such punishment for the first time last year under state terror policies, and that the regime's ``repressive political climate'' prevented discussion of a subject that is interpreted in varying ways throughout the Muslim world.

The group urged Iraq to suspend the decrees and permit U.N. human rights official Max Van der Stoel and his staff to enter the country for human rights monitoring.

The report's data were gathered from a variety of sources including physicians and soldiers who have defected. News reports quoted included some published in Iraq by the government to warn potential enemies.

Beginning last August, the report said, ``the government began branding the foreheads'' of criminal amputees with one-centimeter (half-inch) crosses to meet demands of veterans who lost limbs in military service to be differentiated from criminals.

Saddam's government has given no indication the amputation laws have curbed the crime wave.