Iraqi people walk near the Tigris River in Mosul. Picture: Ari Jalal/Reuters

Baghdad — A ferry overloaded with people celebrating the Kurdish new year sank in the Tigris River near the Iraqi city of Mosul on Thursday, killing at least 45 people, an official said.

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.

Khalil said many of the dead were women and children, adding that search operations are still underway. He said the ferry sank because of a technical problem, and that there weren't many boats in the area to rescue people.

"We have pulled out 45 bodies and the number could rise," Khalil said. He added that more than 80 people were on the ferry when the accident occurred.

Another Civil Defense official said 12 people were rescued. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The river's level was high because of a rainy season that brought more precipitation than previous years.

Nowruz, or the Persian new year, dates back to 1700 B.C. and incorporates Zoroastrian traditions. It is celebrated across territories that once made up the ancient Persian empire, stretching from the Middle East to Central Asia.

Iraqi forces drove the Islamic State group from Mosul in 2017 after a devastating campaign that left entire neighbourhoods in ruins.