* Arrested al Qaeda members said to be planning attacks
* Kurdistan seen as safest place in Iraq
By Shamal Aqrawi
ARBIL, Iraq, Dec 30 (Reuters) - Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region has tightened security before New Year's Eve after captured militants said al Qaeda-linked groups were turning to the relatively safe area, officials said on Thursday.
Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been largely untouched by war, is regarded by investors and many Iraqis as a safe haven in an otherwise dangerous country. The area sits on big oil reserves and could help Iraq to boost crude exports, which provide 95 percent of federal revenues.
Faiq Tawfeq, deputy interior minister of the northern Kurdish region, said militants from the Iraqi wing of al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq, had confessed after being arrested last week to planning attacks in the region.
"According to an interrogation of the members of this group, as well as information we received from our own sources, terrorist groups are seeking opportunities to launch attacks in the region," he said.
Tawfeq said regional police and the army were stepping up security particularly in areas where large crowds could gather on Friday to mark the start of the new year, such as in the main cities of Sulaimaniya and Arbil.
"We know that those terrorists will not leave Kurdistan without making problems in it. We know they want to establish a presence for themselves in Kurdistan, but this will not happen," Tawfeq said.
Iraqi Kurdistan gained semi-autonomy under Western protection after the first Gulf war in the early 1990s. It remained an oasis of relative calm while the rest of Iraq descended into sectarian bloodshed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
There are few blast walls protecting buildings from bomb attacks and residents can stay out after dark and frequent restaurants and clubs. It has become a gateway to investing in Iraq, with shopping centres, hotels and a booming real estate sector.
Lieutenant General Hussein Kamal, a deputy interior minister in the federal government, said Iraqi security forces recently seized documents in Baghdad and Mosul indicating that al Qaeda wanted to develop its operations in Iraqi Kurdistan.
"The Iraqi government has certain information through the documents got from al Qaeda ... There are fears al Qaeda will possibly open a new front in the north," Kamal said. "Regional security authorities also have similar information with regards to this concern."
On Tuesday, the website of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) published a three-minute video of eight of 16 captured militants in which they appeared to confess to planning attacks.
"I am from Tal Afar. I joined al Qaeda in 2003 and I am an explosives expert," one man, identified as Rakan Tareq Mahmoud, said in the video. "We were sent to Mosul and then asked to go to Sulaimaniya to conduct explosions, but we were arrested by anti-terrorist forces in Sulaimaniya," he said.
Bombings and attacks are still a daily occurrence in many parts of Iraq, although not at the same levels recorded in 2006-07 at the height of sectarian warfare. Insurgents are still capable of launching big attacks in areas such as Baghdad, which is peppered with hundreds of checkpoints. (Additional reporting and writing by Waleed Ibrahim; Editing by Serena Chaudhry/David Stamp)