Over 50 people have been rescued so far, as ambulances and helicopters arrived to continue the search for survivors and bodies of the victims. The battle to retake Iraq's second city destroyed much of it.
Khalil said the vessel sank because of a technical problem, and there were few boats in the area to rescue people.
Col. Hussam Khalil, head of the Civil Defense in the northern Nineveh province, told The Associated Press the accident occurred as scores of people were out in the tourist area celebrating Nowruz, which marks the Kurdish new year and the arrival of spring.
He said the ferry had been loaded to several times its capacity. Reuters said, citing police and medical sources, that at least 40 people died in the accident. He said the stricken ferry was overloaded with around 150 people when it capsized.
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Five ferry workers were arrested late on Thursday, security sources said.
Mobile phone footage showed the ferry sinking into the muddy water and people shouting for help.
Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the Iraqi prime minister, ordered an investigation and expressed deep condolences to the families of the victims.
Iraqi people walk near the Tigris River in Mosul.
"The Department of Water Resources warned a few days ago that the level of water will rise as a result of the opening of dams", said Habu.