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Ok...a partially false alarm.

I just did some additional Internet searching... it seems
that popt was always included in RPM, but they used to
distribute popt tarballs as well. However no official
tarball exists for popt-1.8. It should be in the
ftp://ftp.rpm.org/pub/rpm/dist/rpm-4.2.x directory and when
I did not find it, I checked whether there had been some
relative decision... and got confused by a 2-year old
comment in the RPM distribution (well.. it _WAS_ in a newly
updated file :-). Anyway I am now trying to contact the RPM
developers and have them release separate popt tarballs, so
perhaps this issue will be resolved soon.

However the comments on the build process behaviour are
still valid. The binaries are built, but are not even able
to display the --version info. Perhaps they should be
disabled when popt is not present.